In years past, the name “Area 51” has elicited images of little green men, flying saucers, and government cover ups. Of course, among those in the know, the secret military facility in the dry lake bed that was formerly Groom Lake has conjured up slightly different imagery: that of the exotic and advanced military aircraft tested there throughout the decades. Planes like the Lockheed U-2 spy plane and Project Oxcart which would go on to become the SR-71 Blackbird, America’s spy plane that still holds the record as the fastest military aircraft on the planet, despite being retired before the dawn of the new millennium.
Now, it appears the base may be undergoing a revamp, with equipment seen shuttling into the area and satellite images confirming new structures on the grounds of the facility the U.S. government once denied even existed. This rash of activity amid the secluded Nevada desert has left some begging the question… what must Uncle Sam have planned for the air base that saw the initial test flights of America’s stealth programs?
According to some, the answer is clear; as America’s heavy bombers near the end of their service lives, their planned replacement, the B-21 Raider, needs an airstrip to call its own.
If the Air Force intends to start testing what promises to be the next leap forward in bomber tech intended to penetrate deep beyond the advanced defense systems employed by America’s near-peer competitors, they’ll need somewhere to do it. What better place than the same hidden air strip that once housed America’s most important aerial secrets?
The B-21 Raider promises to be America’s first new heavy bomber developed in over three decades, and the Air Force hopes to replace both the aging B-52H Stratofortress and the fighter-like B1-B Lancer with over 100 B-21s in the coming decades. Upgrades to the “Area 51” site between 2014 and 2016 show what appears to be a hangar large enough to easily house a B1-B Lancer or B-2 bomber, but more recent additions, constructed within the past year, are what appear to be new engine test facilities and a significant clean up and revamp of the taxiways and hangars.
Aerospace imaging expert Al Clark told The Aviationist, “The building that is more interesting 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.”
In fact, those dimensions could house literally any aircraft the U.S. military has to offer, even the massive C-5 Galaxy, America’s largest military aircraft with a payload capacity of an incredible 270,000 pounds. In effect, the revamped hangar is large enough to hide just about anything the U.S. Air Force wants to keep away from prying eyes, while maintaining access to a functional runway. Whatever the intentions are, the facility at Groom Lake has been undergoing a lot of work in the past year, indicating that something new must be on the horizon.
With fewer than 100 operational B-1B Lancers, for instance, it seems unlikely that one of America’s existing heavy bombers would be plucked from duty for a Groom Lake visit. In fact, despite America’s massive military, the number of large aircraft in service are still small enough that people would notice if some disappeared from operational rotations – meaning the hangar is either intended to house a number of smaller, easier to relocate, aircraft, or something altogether new. In fact, in all likelihood, the facility at Groom Lake probably has a number of developmental programs housed within the sprawling base, the B-21 (most likely) among them.
The B-21 Raider is expected to cost a cool $550 million per plane, and appears, at least externally, to be an update on the B-2 model, with the most notable difference at the exhaust ports, undoubtedly intended further reduce the stealth aircraft’s radar profile. The new bomber isn’t expected to be operational until well into the 2020s, but it would appear that the U.S. Air Force is already getting the ball moving on a testing facility to help put it through its paces.
Or at least, that’s what they want us to think.
Feature image courtesy of Northrop Grumman