The U.S. Air Force unveiled the Northrop Grumman-made B-21 stealth bomber earlier this month, providing the public with its first look at what defense leaders have described as the “backbone” of its future bomber force.
“The B-21 will form the backbone of the future Air Force bomber force,” the Air Force said in a statement. “Designed to operate in tomorrow’s high-end threat environment, the B-21 will play a critical role in ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability.”
Once completed, the stealth bomber will be nuclear-capable and designed to accommodate manned and unmanned operations.
Austin, at the unveiling, said that the bomber represents “deterrence the American way,” and he spoke about the developments between the B-21 and its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit bomber, saying, “Fifty years of advances in low-observable technology have gone into this aircraft.”
One key aspect of the new bomber is that it’s “highly adaptable” and will be able to handle weapons not yet created, the secretary added.
“The Raider was built with open-system architecture, which makes it highly adaptable,” Austin said. “As the United States continues to innovate, this bomber will be able to defend our country with new weapons that haven’t even been invented yet. And the B-21 is multi-functional. It can handle anything from gathering intel, to battle management, to integrating with our allies and partners. And it will work seamlessly across domains, and theaters, and across the joint force.”
The Air Force has announced its intention to acquire 100 B-21 Raiders, though only six are in various stages of final assembly, and the first flight is tentatively set for 2023.
In the backdrop of the Pentagon’s unveiling of the B-21 is the Chinese military’s continued growth and aggression and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
A recent report from the department released in late November revealed that China’s operational nuclear warheads stockpile has likely surpassed 400 already and that it could exceed 1,500 by 2035 on their current pace.
Austin, a week after the B-21 unveiling, warned that the U.S. is on the verge of a dangerous new phase while the country goes up against two nuclear powers in China and Russia as both are “expanding and modernizing” their nuclear arsenals.
“Today, STRATCOM faces new challenges,” he said. “The United States is on the verge of a new phase, one where for the first time, we face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors. The People’s Republic of China is expanding and modernizing and diversifying its nuclear forces, and Russia is also modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal. And as the Kremlin continues its cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine, the whole world has seen Putin engage in deeply-irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling.”
The Department of Defense has commonly referred to China as its “pacing challenge” and Russia as an “acute threat,” though it views China as the only power that has the intent and capability to reshape the international order in its favor.
China’s state-run Global Times quoted a Chinese military expert, Zhang Xuefeng, who said the upgrades from previous bombers to the B-21 “will significantly enhance the bomber’s stealth capability” and will “receive a stronger capability in defense penetration.”