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.

Could America's secretive B-21 Raider already be flying?
(Photo by Tech. Sgt. Marvin Lynchard, USAF)

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.

Could America's secretive B-21 Raider already be flying?
Artist’s rendition of the B-21 Raider (USAF)

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.”