The new bomber will be unveiled on December 2. It is a rare major weapons system that has come in on time and on budget.

It will be able to control swarms of drones, attack hardened and deeply buried facilities, and anti-access/area denial systems. Hello China?

B-21 Raider: The Right Strategic Bomber For A New Age Of Air Warfare

The Air Force has announced that the unveiling of its new strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider, will take place on December 2. This program is an industry-government success story: so far, the program is on time and on budget. Part of the reason for its success is that the B-21 is, in many respects, a logical evolutionary step from what has come before.

B-21 Raider: Something Special

The design itself and many of the major systems are advanced but not revolutionary. The real advances have been made in avionics, electronic systems, stealth features, and weapons that will enable the Raider to operate in intense anti-air environments. The B-21 will also benefit from the industry’s development of open systems architectures that permit rapid and continuous upgrading of systems and software to improve performance.

It is remarkable, given the history of schedule slippages and cost overruns in major defense programs, that the B-21 is on schedule and on budget. The program began in 2015; seven years later, Northrop-Grumman is rolling out the first aircraft. This makes it the Department of Defense’s (DoD) most successful rapid acquisition program.


B-21 In a New Age of Warfare

The key question is whether the new platform will fill the Air Force’s needs in a new age of air warfare. The Raider is entering service at a time when all major forces involved in air warfare, both offensive and defensive, are in transition. The most obvious changes are rapid developments in air defenses, not only in weapons but also in the ability to integrate multiple systems into an interlocking area-denial capability. Another change is the proliferation of strike capabilities, both onboard payloads and long-range unmanned aerial systems (UASs).

Increasingly, the future of air warfare will be about manned-unmanned teaming. Also at play is the integration of sensors across all domains of warfare to pass information rapidly to the tactical edge, which would give airborne platforms like the B-21 an unparalleled ability to respond to their environments. A final change is the growth potential for the Air Force to deploy sensors, communications packages, and even offensive weapons on non-traditional platforms such as aerial refueling tankers and cargo aircraft.

The Raider could be the central player in revolutionizing the strike capability of the U.S. Air Force. The focus is no longer on just the capabilities of a fighter or bomber but also on accompanying capabilities that will be integrated with current and future platforms. The Air Force sees the B-21 and the future Next Generation Air Dominance platform as part of a family of systems.

The Air Force describes the concept for the Raider this way:

“The B-21 Raider will be a component of a larger family of systems for conventional Long Range Strike, including Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, electronic attack, communication, and other capabilities. It will be nuclear capable and designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations. Additionally, it will be able to employ a broad mix of stand-off and direct-attack munitions.”

All of the Services, but perhaps the Air Force most of all, are moving to a distributed warfare paradigm. This involves proliferating sensors and communications nodes, connecting to the capabilities of the other Services, adding weapons delivery capabilities to non-traditional platforms, and making extensive use of unmanned systems.


Operating in a passive mode, the B-21, like the F-35, can act like an airborne command post, directing swarms of manned and unmanned platforms. In this role, the Raider could provide critical real-time targeting information for long-range Army and Navy weapons.

Senior Air Force officials have made it clear that they see the new bombers as vital to countering adversaries’ anti-access/area denial strategies. The U.S. needs a long-range, stealthy strike system that can defeat enemies’ potential efforts to keep U.S. forces at a distance or hide targets in their vast interior spaces. This was recognized as a requirement by Air Force Chief of Staff General C.Q. Brown who said, “The B-21 Raider program is foundational to the Air Force’s operational imperative for an effective, long-range strike family of systems to guarantee our ability to strike any target, anytime, anywhere, even in the most contested environment.”

The B-21 has one additional noteworthy feature: its ability to conduct direct attacks on hardened and deeply buried facilities. These attacks generally require overflying targets, which would be heavily defended.