Air Force Unveils New B-21 Stealth Bomber After Seven Years in the Making
Hundreds of VIPs and thousands of Northrop employees applauded as tail number 0001 was shown off with help from lasers and fog machines.
PALMDALE, California—The U.S. Air Force has at last pulled the veil from its new B-21 stealth bomber, which contractor Northrop Grumman has been building behind closed doors for seven years.
In a ceremony at the Air Force’s closely guarded Plant 42 production facility, Northrop rolled out the first B-21 Raider to hundreds of journalists, Northrop employees, and various VIPs. For several hours, defense officials and industry executives gushed over the wing-shaped plane, touting it as the world’s most advanced aircraft and a key new weapon to counter China.
“The B-21 looks imposing, but what’s under the frame and the space-aged coatings is even more impressive,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, one of many senior defense officials, lawmakers, and industry executives who flew to the California desert on this cold Friday evening for the rollout.
Austin said no other long-range bomber can meet the B-21’s efficiency. Its long range will allow it to be based in the United States and fly anywhere in the world.
He also touted the bomber’s stealth technology.
“Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will struggle to detect the B-21 in the sky,” he said.
Austin said the bomber is “carefully designed to be the most maintainable ever built,” with open-architecture technology to make it quickly updatable.
“As the United States continues to innovate, this bomber will be able to defend our country with new weapons that haven’t even been invented yet,” he said. “The B-21 is multifunctional. It can handle anything from gathering intel, to battle management, to integrating with our allies and partners.”
Shortly after 5 p.m., the hangar doors of building 423 opened to reveal the silhouette of a wing-shaped aircraft under a custom-made drapery. Amid booming pump-up music and laser lights piercing the fog-filled hangar, workers pulled the sheet off, revealing a gray-colored, manta-ray shaped aircraft: B-21 tail number 0001. A tractor pulled the plane from the hangar and out to the tarmac as hundreds of VIPs and thousands of workers cheered.
The B-21 “will operate in tomorrow’s high-end threat environment and it will enable America to out-maneuver, to out-pace, and to out-match our adversaries,” Adm. Christopher Grady, the Joint Chiefs vice chairman, said during the ceremony.
The bomber is “a long-range penetrating capability that will allow us to carry out our missions in the Indo-Pacific theater, and in all parts of the world where the Air Force needs to operate and provide the capability the joint force requires in those theaters,” Andrew Hunter, the U.S. Air Force’s top weapons buyer said.
Despite allowing defense officials, lawmakers, and journalists to view the plane, the project remains highly classified. Those at the rollout were not allowed to see the back of the plane, likely so as not to unveil the design around the engine outlets, which is likely designed to reduce detectable heat.
Officials still have only talked in generalities about the B-21’s design and capabilities. People close to the program talk about the work that’s been done, especially during the pandemic, to keep it on track.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, in his previous role as the Pentagon’s acquisition chief during the Obama administration, helped structure the B-21 program with Bill LaPlante, who at the time was the Air Force’s acquisition chief and is now the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer.
“It was set up to have a reasonable chance of being executable. So far, it’s doing very well with that,” Kendall said in an interview shortly before the rollout on a flight from Washington to Palmdale. “The program still has a long way to go, but I’m encouraged by the progress we’ve made so far. People should be aware there is risk in all these programs. When we’re done with it, we’re going to have a really important national capability both for conventional and strategic missions.”
Northrop Grumman Kathy Warden told Defense One in an interview earlier this month that she has regularly visited the B-21 assembly line here in Palmdale since about 2018.
“Part of why we're doing this rollout when we are is to message to that team, how much we appreciate the work they've been doing,” Warden said. It's an opportunity now for them, for the first time, to acknowledge [their work] even with friends and family, because up until this point in the program [it] is classified that most of them can't go home and tell their family what they're working on and their family doesn't have an image what the B 21 is.”
There were still plenty of restrictions for these here at Friday’s rollout ceremony. Mobile phones needed to be left outside of the hangar and only cameras without zoom lenses were permitted as U.S. officials still look to guard bespoke aspects of the plane’s design. Most of the guests were not allowed to see the nearby production line where at least five other B-21s are being assembled because it’s still highly classified.
Asked how frustrating it is not to be able to share more about the plane, Warden said: “There's just so many of our stakeholders who would love to know more and I know will be equally inspired to see what we're doing here. And not being able to share that it's like having a great secret that you can't tell anyone.”
That said, Warden touted the digital nature of the B-21 production line, which allows Northrop to share design info directly with its suppliers in 40 states around the country.
“We are able to have our suppliers working off of the same digital model we are,” she said. “It has really eased the integration of the parts that our suppliers are building into our manufacturing line, and reduced rework and accelerated the timeline for the production of these test articles. And we know that we'll have similar advantages as we move into production.”
The plane has been built to easily receive updates throughout its years of service, Warden said, something that has historically not been done on large military aircraft programs. She described what company executives are calling the first sixth-generation aircraft, as having “the most advanced stealth” technology.
Also, the parts of the planes design could allow allies to one day purchase the bomber.
“In many ways, the modular architecture of the B-21 lends itself to adaptation if the U.S. government wanted to do so to make the platform exportable,” she said. “But that's something that we would leave in the hands of the U.S. government to decide. I'm not going to advocate one way or another on this platform specifically."
Northrop’s facility here and the B-21 production line remained open throughout the pandemic and COVID-19 outbreaks at the factory. When workers throughout the country were sent home in March 2020, those working on the B-21 assembly line here were provided with letters explaining that their work was essential to national security.
“That's the level of commitment that our people show at that time, and what the company went through working with the government, of course, to adhere to their requirements to continue working through even the early days of the pandemic,” Warden said.
Despite supply-chain woes that have bedeviled the aerospace and defense sector, the CEO attributed the program’s high priority and stable Air Force requirements for keeping it on track throughout the pandemic.