Can the New Stealthy B-21 Bomber Evade the Best Russian Air Defenses?
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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) The very first Air Force B-21 Raider stealth aircraft is nearing completion in preparation for its expected first flight sometime in the coming year, marking a seismic shift in U.S. ability to project power globally and, if needed, hold otherwise unreachable adversaries at risk of close-in air attack.
The first one has not as of yet “reached final assembly,” according to a report in Air Force Magazine, however the publication quotes the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office Randall Walden saying the plane is “really starting to look like a bomber.”
Several years ago, an Air Force three-star weapons developer told Warrior that the new B-21 will operate with an ability to hold “any target at risk, anywhere in the world, at any time.”
What this may mean is that senior Air Force weapons developers are finding a way to refer to how the B-21s new never-before-seen stealth characteristics may in fact enable the aircraft to operate undetected against the most advanced, Russian-made air defenses in the world.
Should this be true, and it may very well be, it would represent a massive breakthrough development. Russian-built S-400s and S-500s are known to introduce new levels of detection capability, believed and claimed by some to even operate with an ability to detect stealth aircraft to a degree. They now function with much faster computer processing speeds, digital real-time point to point networking between air defense nodes and an ability to operate on a wider sphere of frequencies.
While this by no means indicates that a platform such as a B-2 could get found and shot, it would not be a bad estimation to think that the threats presented by these new air defenses have, at least to some extent, inspired current upgrades to the B-2. In fact, B-2 bombers are now being engineered with a special new technology called the Defensive Management System, an advanced sensor designed to find the locations of enemy air defenses, inform bomber crews and therefore enable B-2 pilots to navigate away from or “around” these air defense systems.
For example, even if a B-2 succeeds in eluding high-frequency, fast-moving engagement radar and therefore cannot actually be shot down in flight, it might be seen by lower-frequency, wide spanning surveillance radar. Surveillance radar cannot shoot down an enemy, but it is dangerous in that it is intended to simply identify that an attacking threat is at least “there” in the airspace.
Unlike fighter jets, many of which have vertical structures more detectable to enemy radar return signals, smooth horizontal bombers such as the B-2 or new B-21 are designed to elude both surveillance and engagement radar, and therefore conduct operations without an enemy even knowing something is there. Effective stealth technology, which includes a mix of composite, radar absorbent materials, heat signature management and smooth blended aircraft shapes devoid of sharp edges or contours more likely to generate a rendering of some kind to electromagnetic radar pings. The new B-21 Raider stealth bomber may be only five years away from serving in action. The B-21 is designed to deploy over enemy territory to scout targets and test advanced enemy air defenses. It can also use a new generation of stealth technology, computer processing, sensors and targeting to attack without an enemy even knowing it is there.
Quoting Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins, Jr., deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, a report in Air Force Magazine says, “the B-21 will be available for service around 2026 or 2027.”
While schedule, construction or technical specifics have generally not been available regarding the bomber, for obvious security reasons, its developmental progress and performance has been cited by senior Air Force leaders for many years now.
This is crucial for the Air Force, which is not only seeking to massively upgrade its small fleet of B-2s, but also incrementally introduce new B-21s to the bomber force. The initial program objective called for roughly 100 new planes, however that number has in recent months been on the rise as senior Air Force leaders have expressed an interest in the possibility of building more.
The Air Force has not had a new bomber since the B-2 first emerged in the late 1980s, and upgraded, better armed, more capable B-2s are expected to fly alongside the arriving B-21s for at least another decade or two, depending upon the pace at which B-21s arrive to the force.
Having a sizable or robust fleet of stealth bombers, which does appear to be the objective for the Air Force, changes the tactical and strategic direction in interesting ways. A plane which reportedly introduces an unprecedented new generation of radar-evading stealth technology could not only secretly attack enemy targets in warfare should strikes be necessary, but it could also greatly expand the scope and reach of U.S. Air Force Bomber Task Force patrols. These are intended as deterrence mechanisms to, at least in part, prevent potential adversaries from thinking they can detect and destroy stealth bombers. That simply may not be true of the B-21.
The on-time arrival of the Air Force’s new B-21 simply cannot come soon enough, given how the service perceives the current condition of its aging bomber fleet. Existing B-52s, B-1Bs and B-2s are all being massively upgraded to prevent obsolescence and enable them to fly into the future. Weapons, communications, airframe, sensor and software enhancements to these existing bombers are expected to add many years, if not several decades, to the service life of these aircraft. However, the need for the B-21 is considered extremely pressing. While the exact extent to which the Air Force may seek to go beyond its initial plan for 100 B-21s may not be known, senior service leaders have consistently said there is, potentially, a need for a much larger force of new B-21 Raiders.
The reason for this is self-evident enough, as one need look no further than recent Russian and Chinese bomber innovations which might present a totally new threat equation. China’s new H-20 bomber, which is now just beginning to emerge publicly for the first time, appears to be an effort to specifically rival the U.S. B-21. While it is by no means clear that it does challenge the B-21, the mere existence of the stealthy-looking H-20 is fueling the U.S. Air Force effort to build and deploy a new generation of stealth with the Raider.
The H-20 does have a B-2, B-21-like stealthy configuration, yet the actual merits or potential successes of its stealth properties may be fully unknown. According to very few available possible renderings or images of the H-20, it appears to closely mirror elements of both the B-2 and B-21. Its air ducts on top of the blended wing-fuselage structure look very similar to a B-2, yet its back end is less jagged or pointed than a B-2 and instead seems for more closely approach the appearance of the B-21.
In order to avoid enemy radar, a stealth aircraft likely needs much more than a blended wing-body shaped smooth horizontal exterior to avoid radar detection. Successful stealth must include a mix of interwoven variables such as radar absorbent materials and, perhaps of even greater significance, thermal management. Controlling, moderating or managing the heat signature emitted by an aircraft can at times be a decisive factor in avoiding sensor detection. The aim of stealth engineering is to build an aircraft which can blend in or align with the surrounding atmospheric conditions such as temperature. The lower the difference between the temperature of the aircraft itself and that of the surrounding air, the stealthier the plane is.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest*.* Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.