B-21 Raider Seen From Above In New Image
As the B-21 creeps towards its first flight, still slated for later this year, we are getting new looks at it and new insights.
Two new images of the B-21 Raider next-generation stealth bomber have been released by the U.S. Air Force. One is a detailed close-up of the B-21's nose and cockpit section, the other provides us with the first look at the planform of the secretive new jet, which aims to replace the B-2 and the B-1.
The elevated image underscores the B-21's overall layout, which harkens back to what the B-2 would have looked like if requirements for low-level penetration were not introduced mid-way through its development. This planform also would have given the B-2 a substantially higher operating ceiling, which the B-21 will likely achieve. While the image overall is compressed due to the wide angle lens, it still highlights the B-21's smaller proportions compared to its now well over three decades-old progenitor.
Make sure to read our initial analysis of the B-21's design during its rollout here and especially our deep dive comparative analysis of the aircraft here.
We also get a much better look at the B-21's deeply-recessed air intakes — arguably the B-21's most impressive feature so far. In previous images, it was hard to tell what structure could be seen inside the engines, but now we see that these are in fact removable intake covers.
This new image further shows just how deep these structures are, providing the B-21 with very low observability from any aspect. There also appears to be a sight hump just before the forward lip of the intake, which is similar to what we have seen in diverterless inlet designs of the past. This would help separate turbulent boundary layer air from entering the intake.
Still, much is unknown about how exactly Northrop Grumman pulled off the B-21's sunken inlet design. The air inlets on a low observable aircraft are among the hardest features to design. This was proven to be the case during the B-21's development, as you can read about here.
In addition, we now see how shallow the engine nacelle 'humps' are that run toward the rear of the aircraft. This is a major enhancement over those found on the B-2.
Beyond the engine intakes and nacelles themselves, we can see what appear to be two large apertures atop each nacelle hump. Exactly what these are isn't clear, but they are most likely conformal arrays that provide resilient satellite communications. One on each side would make sense in terms of redundancy, but also to retain connectivity even during steep banking so that the center fuselage hump doesn't block line-of-sight.
There are three other trapezoidal apertures of some kind toward the rear of the engine nacelle humps. There are also common crests painted on each side of the central fuselage hump. This is similar to what is seen on the B-2.
The retro 'bird' Northrop Grumman logo is on one wing and the USAF's roundel is on the other. On the left wing (right side in the image) we also see seven trapezoidal apertures of some kind, which could be conformal arrays and/or access points.
The B-21's sinister-looking windscreen and very unique side windows are seen from a different angle here, as well. What it provides above all else is arguably the best look at the bomber's composite skin texture and especially the 'putty and taping' over apertures in that skin. This is especially true around the aircraft's cockpit windows.
Easier and reduced cost maintainability is an absolutely central focus of the B-21 value proposition. Much of this has to do with improvements in maintaining its low-observable coatings. It will be interesting to see how much of what we are seeing in these images changes between now and production.
Overall, the B-21 has an organic look to it, almost as if it was grown, not constructed. It serves as a testament to how far production of large-span composite structures and related material sciences have come in the decades since its predecessor's roll-out.
These new images emerge as the Air Force is shedding light on its most important programs at this year's Air Force Association Warfare Symposium outside of Denver, Colorado, in which The War Zone is in attendance. During a keynote address today, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall stated the following about B-21:
"The B-21, which we rolled out just a few months ago, will be the centerpiece for our Global Strike family of systems. The B-21 is projected to begin flight tests later this calendar year. Our goal is to get into production as quickly as possible with acceptable concurrency risk… overlapping some testing production."
Kendall also said that additional work is being done "enhance both the survivability and effectiveness of the B-21." This is an interesting note as it is widely stated that the B-21's requirements were frozen years ago to keep costs down and schedules on track. It's probable that highly opportunistic capabilities, as well as enhanced software, could still be inserted under certain circumstances. Also, seeing as the B-21 is part of a family of systems under the Long-Range Strike banner, some of those enhancements could come from other capabilities and platforms that are being developed that would impact the B-21's overall abilities directly.
Hopefully, we will find out more about the Raider as the conference continues, stay tuned for any developments.
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