Back in 1975, Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works started tooling around with the Experimental Survivable Testbed (XST) program, also known as Project Harvey. Harvey soon led to the Hopeless Diamond, a shape developed using computers that experts agreed would offer the smallest radar return possible under their current computational restrictions. The Hopeless Diamond led to Have Blue, the precursor program to what would become the world’s first operational stealth aircraft.
By 1981, only six years after the concept began to take shape, the XST program had matured into a flying F-117 airframe. Two years after that, the Nighthawk, America’s “stealth fighter” entered into service under a veil of secrecy. It would fly for five more years before the American government would even acknowledge it existed.
In today’s world full of satellite imagery and cell phone video cameras, that type of secrecy seems all but impossible. With cameras ever-present and a global digital infrastructure capable of relaying leaked information or pictures to news outlets anywhere on the planet in a matter of seconds, keeping a big, triangular bomber a secret sounds downright improbable, but that doesn’t mean impossible.
According to Air Force officials, the B-21 Raider is expected to enter into service sometime in the mid-2020s and eventually replace both the aging B-2 Spirit and B-1B Lancer bombers. The Spirit, sometimes referred to as the “stealth bomber,” shares its flying-wing design with its forthcoming replacement, though beyond the general shape of the B-21, neither the U.S. government nor Northrop Grumman, the firm tasked with its development and production, have offered much in the way of details.
It’s expected that, like the B-2 Spirit, the B-21 will be a long-range, subsonic bomber that relies on low observability to keep it out of trouble, rather than speed. Its stealth design is being developed with far more than a minimal radar signature in mind. With expectations 100 B-21 Raiders will serve as the nation’s bomber backbone for decades to come, the bomber’s stealth profile is expected to include considerations for infrared detection (particularly around the platform’s engine outlets), and a unique combat strategy intended to leverage its technology in the most effective ways possible. Stealth, as many fail to appreciate, is often as reliant on proper planning as it is on technology to work as advertised.
Because the B-21 has been under development for years, it seems almost miraculous that so little is known about the program. The secrecy is, of course, by design, with Defense officials refusing to even put a price tag on the endeavor, aware that an admission of cost would supply the nation’s opponents with a better understanding of what degree of new technology is being developed for the new bomber. A relatively low price tag would suggest a reliance on legacy stealth technologies comparable to what’s been seen on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and aforementioned B-2. A huge one, on the other hand, would point toward the development of new technologies and prompt a scouring of Department of Defense requests in recent years.
But it’s the timeline that begs some hard questions about the B-21’s development. Last December, the Air Force acknowledged the B-21 program had successfully completed its critical design review stage, stating it was an important step toward the eventual production of a test aircraft.
The Air Force is pleased with how the program is moving forward,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. “The B-21 Raider program is on the right track to make continued progress over the next few years as it now transitions from the design phase into a robust manufacturing phase that will ultimately produce our first B-21 test aircraft.”
Suggesting that the B-21 program is still a ways away from a test flight at the end of 2018 makes it seem less and less likely that the platform could begin to enter service by 2025 or so. Sure, the F-117 moved from design to production in around that much time, but more recent stealth endeavors have not been nearly as quick. The F-35 first started flying in 2006 and it wasn’t until this year that the Navy determined its F-35Cs have reached initial operational capability (IOC).
It isn’t impossible that the Air Force has yet to see so much as a full-scale technology demonstrator of the B-21 and still believes it will reach IOC by the mid-2020s, and even if the program was likely going to be delayed, the Air Force probably wouldn’t say so. It also seems somewhat likely, however, that some version of the B-21 Raider may already exist for testing purposes — and they’ve just done an exceptional job of keeping us in the dark.
While the Air Force has identified the bases where it intends to house and test the B-21 Raider (Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma to maintain and sustain the B-21, and Edwards Air Force Base in California to handle testing and evaluation), another interesting addition to an American air base suggests that it’s at least possible that the B-21 could have already seen some flight time. The airstrip on what popular culture calls “Area 51,” but is actually part of Nellis Air Force Base, recently saw a massive addition in the form of a huge new hangar.
Aerospace imaging expert Al Clark told The Aviationist in 2017 that the hanger shown in the image “is approximately 250-feet wide by a length of 275-feet. This is interesting because the B-2 wingspan is only 172-feet, so this is (possibly) designed to house large aircraft, in my opinion possibly the B-21 Raider.”
Could the B-21 already be making test flights out of this recently-constructed hangar? It’s possible, but possible is really all we can say. The Department of Defense didn’t build that hangar for nothing, but with a number of programs in development, including the Penetrating Counter Air fighter program and even plans for an SR-71 successor (dubbed the SR-72), it could feasibly be used to hide just about anything Uncle Sam would rather keep a lid on for the time being. Nighttime flights of a B-21, purpose-built to avoid detection, would be difficult to track — and under cover of darkness and from a distance, it could be difficult to differentiate between a B-21 and its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit.
If any B-21s do exist, it will likely be years before the federal government acknowledges it. If we see this platform reach IOC as soon as the Air Force claims it will, maybe there’s something to the idea that the Air Force already has one or two of these airframes sitting in a hangar somewhere.