TechUS gets ahead in bomber race: Groundbreaking B-21 stealth bomber with Russian-inspired tech goes into production

US gets ahead in bomber race: Groundbreaking B‑21 stealth bomber with Russian-inspired tech goes into production

B-21 Raider (visualization)
B-21 Raider (visualization)
Images source: © Af.mil, Mike Tsukamoto
2:11 PM EST, January 28, 2024

Currently, the B-21 Raider bomber development program is progressing successfully. The aircraft's development is on track, flight tests that began in November 2023 are proceeding without hitches, and the total program cost is lower than anticipated.

Consequently, the US Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Maintenance, William LaPlante, has green-lit the small-scale production of Northrop Grumman's B-21 Raider bombers. The approximate cost of each unit is estimated to be between 500 and 700 million dollars.

According to official statements, the US military aviation plans to acquire 100 aircraft with an option for an additional 49 - significantly more significant than the strategic B-2 Spirit bombers that debuted in 1989 (currently 19 units).

Can you identify these fighters and bombers?

The technical details of this new aircraft have still not been officially disclosed. The B-21 and B-2 appear similar at a superficial level due to adopting an aerodynamic system in a flying wing shape.

The B-21 is slightly smaller, its engine air intakes do not protrude but are built into the wing's edge, and when viewed from above, the differences in the design of the fuselage's rear part near the engine nozzle area are evident.

Visualization - B-2 on the left, B-21 on the right.
Visualization - B-2 on the left, B-21 on the right.© Af.mil, Mike Tsukamoto

The flying drone control center

The fundamental distinction compared to its predecessor is its intended purpose. The B-21 Raider is expected to be more than just a stealth bomber, capable of delivering lethal payloads anywhere in the world.

It is furnished with state-of-the-art avionics and can also function as an electronic warfare platform and primarily a flying drone command center. Its anticipated role includes synchronizing the activities of drones developed under the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program.

These highly autonomous unmanned aircraft, like the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie or the experimental General Dynamics X-62 VISTA (an F-16 model used for testing various AI flight control models), owing to their planned assignment, are referred to as "Loyal Wingmen".

These aircraft are designed to undertake the riskiest tasks and to protect manned aircraft when threatened. Among the companies engaged in building such aircraft; is Anduril, which crafts future combat machines for the military.

Introduction of the first stealth plane

The B-21 Raider bomber significantly strengthens the US Air Force due to its technological edge over potential adversaries and the projected size of its fleet.

B-21 Raider
B-21 Raider© Northrop Grumman

To underline the advantage that the Raider likely holds for American aviation over the rest of the world, it’s relevant to mention that this aircraft benefits from solutions initially introduced by Russian scientists. How did this transpire?

The first plane wherein the designers knowingly incorporated radar signature-reducing measures was the German Ho 229 Horten. This jet bomber, structured as a flying wing at the close of World War II, was not designed by engineers but by aviation enthusiasts Walter and Reimar Horten.

Ho 229 captured by Americans
Ho 229 captured by Americans© Air and Space Museum

The stealth properties they accomplished were primarily the result of the adopted aerodynamic system and experience rather than an understanding of how radar waves reflect off the aircraft.

The theoretical basis for contemporary stealth technology was later developed in the 1960s through research carried out in the Soviet Union by scientist Pyotr Ufimtsev. His results were presented in his work "Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction".

Ufimtsev’s findings recommend dismantling the aircraft's body into numerous small triangular surfaces set at diverse angles to minimize radar reflection.

Experimental airplane Have Blue
Experimental airplane Have Blue© Public domain

Piotr Ufimtsev's overlooked work

The Russians failed to appreciate the significance of Ufimtsev’s work, which was publicly available in 1962 and translated into English in 1971. Almost a decade after its initial publication, the Americans acknowledged the potential of this work.

In 1975, mathematician Denys Overholser presented to Ben Rich, then-head of Skunk Works, a radical solution founded on Ufimtsev's research: constructing an aircraft virtually undetectable by radars.

The aerial revolution proposed by Overholser was met with disbelief and protests from some veteran engineers, including Kelly Johnson, creator of the P-38 Lightning, U-2, and SR-71 Blackbird. Despite such opposition, Overholser, Rich, and their team persisted and built an odd-looking aircraft that, according to Kelly Johnson, had no business flying.

F-117 Nighthawk
F-117 Nighthawk© Public domain

The seasoned engineers were correct: a human couldn't control such a machine in flight. Therefore, some control was assigned to computers, which consistently adjusted the position of the aerodynamic surfaces, enabling the aircraft to stay airborne.

These efforts ultimately resulted in the creation of Have Blue, which later evolved into the F-117. Despite their disparate appearances, the same concepts were applied to subsequent generations of American Stealth Bombers, namely the B-2 Spirit and the B-21 Raider, which has just entered production.

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