Our first look at the Air Force’s new B-21 stealth bomber was just a careful teaser

Northrop Grumman revealed the B-21 Raider in a roll-out ceremony. Here's what we know about it—and what remains hidden.
the B-21 raider bomber
The B-21 Raider was unveiled on Dec. 2. At right is Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who spoke at the event. DOD / Chad J. McNeeley

On Friday, the public finally got a glimpse at the Air Force’s next bomber, the B-21 Raider. Northrop Grumman, which is producing it, rolled out the futuristic flying machine at a ceremony in Palmdale, California, on Dec. 2. It’s a stealthy aircraft, meaning that it’s designed to have a minimal radar signature. It’s also intended to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons. 

The new aircraft will eventually join a bomber fleet that currently consists of three different aircraft types: the old, not-stealthy B-52s, the supersonic B-1Bs, and the B-2 flying wing, which is the B-21’s most direct ancestor. 

Here’s what to know about the B-21 Raider.

The B-21 Raider
The B-21 Raider. US Air Force

A throwback to 1988

At the B-21’s unveiling, the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, referred to the new plane as “the first bomber of the 21st century.” Indeed, the bomber models it will eventually replace include the 1980s-era aircraft, the B-2 Spirit. 

As Peter Westwick recounts in his history of low-observable aircraft in the United States, Stealth, two aircraft makers competed against each other to build the B-2. Northrop prevailed against Lockheed to build the stealth bomber, while Lockheed had previously beaten Northrop when it came to creating the first stealth fighter: the F-117. Northrop scored the contract to build the B-2 in late 1981, and rolled out the craft just over seven years later, in 1988. 

The 1988 roll-out event, Westwick writes, included “no fewer than 41 Air Force generals,” and an audience of 2,000 people. “A tractor towed the plane out of the hangar, the crowd went wild, the press snapped photos, and then the tractor pushed it back out of sight,” he writes. It flew for the first time in 1989.

[Related: The B-21 bomber won’t need a drone escort, thank you very much]

Today, the B-2 represents the smallest segment of the US bomber fleet, by the numbers. “We only bought 21 of them,” says Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at Metrea Strategic Insights. “One has crashed, one is used for testing, and at any given time, several others will be in maintenance—so the reality is we have far too few stealthy bombers in our inventory, and the only way to get more was to design and build a whole new bomber.” 

The B-2 Spirit, seen here from a refueling aircraft, in 2012. US Air Force / Franklin Ramos

The new bomber

The B-21, when it does fly, will join the old group of bombers. Those planes, such as the B-1, “are really aging, and are hard to keep in the air—they’re very expensive to fly, and they just don’t have the capabilities that we need in the bomber fleet of today and in the future,” Harrison says. The B-52s date to the early 1960s; one B-52 pilot once told Popular Science that being at the controls of that aircraft feels like “flying a museum.” If the B-52 is officially called the Stratofortress, it’s also been called the Stratosaurus. (A likely future scenario is that the bomber fleet eventually becomes just two models: B-52s, which are getting new engines, and the B-21.)

[Related: Inside a training mission with a B-52 bomber, the aircraft that will not die]

With the B-21, the view offered by the unveiling video is just of the aircraft from the front, a brief vision of a futuristic plane. “They’re not likely to reveal the really interesting stuff about the B-21,” observes Harrison. “What’s most interesting is what they can’t show us.” That includes internal as well as external attributes. 

Publicly revealing an aircraft like this represents a calculated decision to show that a capability exists without revealing too much about it. “You want to reveal things that you think will help deter Russia or China from doing things that might provoke us into war,” he says. “But, on the other hand, you don’t want to show too much, because you don’t want to make it easy for your adversary to develop plans and technologies to counter your capabilities.”

Indeed, the way that Secretary of Defense Austin characterized the B-21 on Dec. 2 walked that line. “The B-21 looks imposing, but what’s under the frame, and the space-age coatings, is even more impressive,” he said. He then spoke about its range, stealth attributes, and other characteristics in generalities. (The War Zone, a sibling website to PopSci, has deep analysis on the aircraft here and has interviewed the pilots who will likely fly it for the first time here.)

Mark Gunzinger, the director for future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, says that the B-21 rollout, which he attended, “was very carefully staged.” 

[Related: The stealth helicopters used in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden are still cloaked in mystery]

“There were multiple lights on each side of the aircraft that were shining out into the audience,” he recalls. “The camera angles were very carefully controlled, reporters were told what they could and could not do in terms of taking photos, and of course, the aircraft was not rolled out all the way—half of it was still pretty much inside the hanger, so people could not see the tail section.” 

“The one word you heard the most during the presentation from all the speakers was ‘deterrence,'” Gunzinger adds. Part of achieving that is signaling to others that the US has “a creditable capability,” but at the same time, “there should be enough uncertainty about the specifics—performance specifics and so forth—so they do not develop effective countermeasures.”

The B-21 rollout concluded with Northrup Grumman’s CEO, Kathy Warden, who mentioned the aircraft’s next big moment. “The next time you see this plane, it’ll be in the air,” she said. “Now, let’s put this plane to bed.” 

And with that, it was pushed back into the hanger, and the doors closed in front of it. 

Watch the reveal video, below.