In a surprise end-of-the-week announcement, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James gave the world its first official look at the Air Force's next-generation bomber along with its official name: the B-21.
In terms of an "official look" this isn't exactly an auto show reveal. The Air Force released a single artist's rendering of the bomber from a dorsal three-quarter angle—not exactly a comprehensive view of the plane let alone actual photographs. (The Air Force claims no existing B-21 prototypes exist yet, to which we respond: Suuuuuuure.) The image resembles nothing so much as a combination of the B-2 bomber and the X-47 drone; considering both of those those planes are made by Northrop Grumman just like the B-21, this concept probably isn't far off the mark.
Based on the rendering, we can extrapolate a couple things. Based upon those sharp angles and long, straight wings the B-21 will be stealthy but it won't be supersonic. Like the B-2 it will almost certainly be optimized for long, fuel-efficient flights, allowing it to soar halfway around the world, drop its payload, then boogie home without taking too many drags off the refueling tankers' teats. The rendering's lack of outlets for the jet engines, though, makes us wonder if the B-21 is being designed with some secret new way to disguise the easily-detectable hot exhaust—or if the designer just forgot to add them in, because art.
As for the bomber's name, if "B-21" makes you wonder what the hell happened to B-3 through B-20, well, the Air Force says the B-21 moniker stems from the plane's roots as the first new bomber of the 21st Century. Combined with the fact that the B-52 might stick around for 90 years, this makes us a little concerned that the Air Force is preparing for the idea that the B-21 might be the only new bomber the United States fields in the 21st Century.
Regardless, "B-21" won't be bomber's only name when it enters service in the mid-2020s. Every plane in the Air Force is given not just an alphanumeric code, but also by an English-language name: B-2 Spirit, B-1B Lancer, F-22A Raptor, F-35 Junkheap Lightning II, etc. For the B-21 the Air Force is inviting airmen to submit suggestions for the bomber's moniker. The winner will have the honor of appearing alongside Secretary James this fall to announce the name, along with the honor of, y'know, naming a brand-new class of stealth bomber.