B-21 Raider Seen Like Never Before In New Images
We have just been given our first side view of Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider stealth bomber, an aircraft that remains cloaked in secrecy.
During Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown's speech at this year's Air & Space Forces Association's mega conference outside of Washington, D.C., the soon-to-be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs dropped two new images of the B-21 Raider. While the stealth bomber was rolled out in December of last year, it remains cloaked in secrecy. Brown, the top Air Force uniformed officer, didn't specifically reference the images in his presentation.
Up until today, only one angle of the full aircraft has been seen by the public — head-on — and in a very controlled environment at the bomber's unveiling. Aside from a close-up of the cockpit area at an angle, all imagery published since then has been from the same head-on perspective, although it has progressively shown the aircraft in more detail. Now we have our first quartering view of the flying-wing jet, which provides significant details about its design. A new head-on image also gives us a better idea of the bomber's actual size. Both images were taken at Northrop Grumman's facility at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.
We will be updating this post shortly with our full analysis, but in the meantime, here are those images taken from the video presentation:
According to the U.S. military's Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) website, both of these pictures were taken on July 31 of this year. This is just days after Northrop Grumman announced that the first pre-production Raider had been "powered on" for the first time. This is an important milestone in getting the aircraft ready for its first flight, which is still expected to come before the end of the year.
"We're still hopeful on having first flight this year," Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall told The War Zone and other outlets at a media roundtable on the sidelines of the Air & Space Forces's conference yesterday. "If I were to say it will, I would be making a very specific prediction. And I never do that about an acquisition program for something that hasn't happened yet. Okay?"
"We're going through a number of things to get ready for first flight," he continued. "There is always risk involved… Something can surprise you. So, absent any unexpected surprises… [and] surprises do with acquisition programs."
"There's a series of steps that we're tracking," Kendall added. "There's a detailed schedule."
We see the B-21 transform from more of a shape to an actually functioning aircraft in these new images. The prototype has gone through extensive outfitting with the systems needed to actually fly.
The quartering view of the raider provides the biggest revelations. It confirms a number of assumptions made based on earlier imagery, concept drawings, program information, and inference. The smaller details that make up the Raider are also coming into focus.
- The first B-21 ever built is now fitted with a big air data probe that has been fashioned at an angle to the left side of the lower forward section of the aircraft. This ungainly feature will be critical for gathering air data during the B-21's first flight and subsequent primary flight dynamics test missions.
- Air data sensors are now visible along the B-21's lower and upper fuselage. These flush-mounted devices are absolutely critical to maintaining stable flight for the Raider, which relies entirely on fly-by-wire computers to keep airborne and flying in the right direction.
- The B-21 does have a flat, shelf-like extension that deeply extends from its lower fuselage to its leading edge, giving it a duckbill-like appearance. This low observable feature is far more pronounced than what is found on the B-2. The possibility of this being the case became clearer as more renderings of the B-21 became available.
- The Raider's cockpit windows are just as bizarre as they appeared in the rendering featuring them prior to roll-out. The side windows are small and strangely angled. We have a number of ideas as to why they were designed that way, but they do appear very strange from the side angle. Overall the visibility appears to be very constrained out of the Raider.
- The ejection hatch panels, seen outlined with dotted lines on the top of the aircraft, are also curious. They sit far back and are another indicator of just how limited the pilots' visibility will likely be in this aircraft. They also speak to the challenge that is judging the proportions on the alien-like B-21. The cockpit is either very small or very tall. We are leaning toward the former. We also see the aerial refueling markings peeking out from atop the aircraft's bulged spine.
- Just how deeply 'buried' the Raider's inlets — one of the most exotic and challenging low-observable features of the design — truly are. They are just cresting the aircraft's leading edge from the perspective of the camera. This is a good reminder of just how the Raider will conceal its engine inlets from adversary radars, especially those emitting from any aspect below the aircraft. Considering the B-21 is likely to have a high ceiling, most radar-toting adversary aircraft shouldn't be operating above it.
- We also get a good view of just how blended the B-21's engine intakes and nacelle areas truly are, showing just a slight bulge in this image.
- We see a dark area beyond the nacelles, on the side of the aircraft's central fuselage 'hump.' It isn't clear what this is, but thermal protection for the B-21's still very secretive exhaust system could be what we are seeing here. Although if that is the case, it is quite far forward and high up on the central fuselage for such an application.
- The B-21's gear doors are also of interest. Gone are the big trapezoidal main gear doors of the B-2. Here we see six-sided doors that cover the jet's single truck main landing gear. The larger and heavier B-2 relied on a double truck arrangement.
- The Raider's nose gear door is perhaps the most interesting. It is divided into two doors, both opening up to the right side of the aircraft. The B-2 had a single door that opened forward, creating something of an air brake, as well as a side door further back that remained closed after extension and retraction.
- We are also getting our first look at the B-21's flight control surfaces. They are made up of three flapperons on the outboard side of the wing, and one on the inboard side. This differs from the B-2, with its more complex sawtooth trailing edge planform that features two flapperons inboard and outboard, and a variable geometry 'beaver tail' in the center of its trailing edge. The B-21 has a simpler 'W' trailing edge, very similar to how the B-2 was supposed to look before its low-altitude penetration mission was added to its requirements. You can read more about this and its implications here.
- The B-21 is already adorned with its 0001 serial and Edwards Air Force Base (ED) markings ahead of its flight test program that will take place there.
- We can also see multiple elongated apertures on the top of the B-21's wing leading edges. Various antenna arrays, for both active and especially passive sensors, would be incorporated into these areas. It's possible that these antenna structures themselves could be load-bearing.
Now let's move to the head-on image.
- We get a much better comparative view of the B-21's size and especially how small its cockpit windscreen appears to be.
- We can clearly see the air data sensors — there appear to be a dozen on the lower fuselage — as well as two strips in front of the cockpit, similar to what we see on the B-2.
- We can see the air data probe extending forward and downward from its temporary plate mount.
- This is yet another view showing just how blended the B-21's air inlets and powerplant enclosures are with the rest of its airframe. We still do not know if the B-21 has two or four engines.
- There are two small trapezoidal apertures that appear to house some sort of arrays on each side of the B-21's lower nose section. They look similar to the shape of the Northrop Grumman's Electronically-Scanned Multifunction Reconfigurable Integrated Sensor (EMRIS), which has seamless data communications, sensor, and electronic warfare capabilities. As we posited recently about the NGAD program, the B-21 will likely leverage multi-mode AESA arrays that will provide datalink communications, sensor, and electronic attack roles. This has major implications you can read about here. Still, we don't know for certain what these apertures are for or if they are indeed supporting installed systems.
- The aperture where the flight data probe is installed could be where one of the B-21's primary radar arrays is supposed to go (one on each side). That would be the historical location for it based on the B-2, although new sensor concepts could be at play that move away from a centralized arrays like that, we just don't know at this time.
That's it for now. I am sure we will have more to add in the coming hours.
Another image has dropped. This time from Northrop Grumman. It is fairly low resolution, but it provides the opposite angle of the image of the B-21 sitting outside. Nothing additional to note that we can see.
We now have a high resolution version of this image.
Also check out our latest story from the Air Force Association's symposium about Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall's answer to our question about the B-21's Long-Range Strike 'family of systems' here.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com