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There's a fight brewing over how secret America's next stealth bomber program should be

Secrecy and classification parameters of Air Forces' new "in-early-development" next-generation B-21 Raider stealth bomber will be analyzed by the Pentagon's Inspector General to investigate just how many details, strategies, and technological advances related to the emerging platform should be highly classified.


While Air Force developers say the long-range bomber is being engineered to have the endurance and next-generation stealth capability to elude the most advanced existing air defenses and attack anywhere in the world, if needed. Very little about the bomber has been released by the Air Force or discussed in the open public. Perhaps that is the most intelligent and "threat-conscious" approach, some claim. Nonetheless, Congress directed the Inspector General to conduct an inquiry into this issue, asking if there is sufficient transparency and communication about the new weapon.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, told reporters May 15 that the service hopes to "balance program classification with the transparency we are shooting for to make sure we are not releasing too much or hindering too much information flow. They are analyzing what should be released."

USAF photo by Airman 1st Class Cody H. Ramirez

The Air Force of course wants to maintain the openness needed to allow for Congressional oversight while ensuring potential adversaries do not learn information about advances in stealth technology and next-generation methods of eluding advanced air defenses. Such is often a challenging, yet necessary balance. Pentagon developers have often said there can be a fine line between there being value in releasing some information because it can function as a deterrent against potential adversaries who might not wish to confront advanced US military technologies in war. At the same time, US commanders and Pentagon leaders, of course, seek to maintain the requisite measure of surprise in war, meaning it is also of great value for the US military to possess technological advantages not known by an enemy.

Furthermore, funding, technology development, and procurement questions related to the new bomber are also subject to extensive Congressional review; the question is whether this should be limited to only certain select "cleared" committees - or be open to a wider audience.

While the Air Force has revealed its first sketch or artist rendering of what the B-21 might look like, there has been little to no public discussion about what some of its new technologies may include. Analysts, observers and many military experts have been left only to speculate about potential advances in stealth technology.

Rendering of the B-21 next-generation bomber, courtesy of USAF

Bunch did, however, in a prior interview with Scout Warrior, clearly state that the new bomber will be able to hold any target at risk, anywhere in the world, at any time.

Bunch, and former Air Force Secretary Deborah James, have at times made reference, in merely a general way, to plans to engineer a bomber able elude detection from even the best, most cutting-edge enemy air defenses.

"Our 5th generation global precision attack platform will give our country a networked sensor shooter capability enabling us to hold targets at risk anywhere in the world in a way that our adversaries have never seen," James said when revealing the image last year.

However, while Air Force developers say the emerging B-21 will introduce new stealth technologies better suited to elude cutting-edge air defenses, Russian media reports have recently claimed that stealth technology is useless against their air defenses. Russian built S-300 and S-400 air defenses are believed to be among the best in the world; in addition, The National Interest has reported that Russia is now working on an S-500 system able to destroy even stealthy targets at distances up to 125 miles.

Russian air defense SA-400. Photo by Vitality Kuzmin

Nevertheless, James and other service developers have added that the new bomber will be able to "play against the real threats."

Although official details about the B-21 are, quite naturally, not available - some observers have pointed out that the early graphic rendering of the plane does not show exhaust pipes at all; this could mean that the Air Force has found advanced "IR suppressors" or new methods or releasing fumes or reducing the heat signature of the new stealth plane.

The Air Force has awarded a production contract to Northrop Grumman to engineer its new bomber. The next-generation stealth aircraft is intended to introduce new stealth technology and fly alongside - and ultimately replace - the service's existing B-2 bomber. Beyond these kinds of general points, however, much like the Air Force, Northrop developers have said virtually nothing about the new platforms development.

"With LRS-B (B-21), I can take off from the continental United States and fly for a very long way. I don't have to worry about getting permission to land at another base and worry about having somebody try to target the aircraft. It will provide a long-reach capability," Lt. Gen. Bunch, Air Force Military Deputy for Acquisition, told Scout Warrior in an interview last year.

Photo from USAF

Prior to awarding the contract to Northrop, the Air Force worked closely with a number of defense companies as part of a classified research and technology phase. So far, the service has made a $1 billion technology investment in the bomber.

"We've set the requirements, and we've locked them down. We set those requirements (for the LRS-B) so that we could meet them to execute the mission with mature technologies," Bunch said.

The service plans to field the new bomber by the mid-2020s. The Air Force plans to acquire as many as 80 to 100 new bombers for a price of roughly $550 million per plane in 2010 dollars, Air Force leaders have said.

For instance, lower-frequency surveillance radar allows enemy air defenses to know that an aircraft is in the vicinity, and higher-frequency engagement radar allows integrated air defenses to target a fast-moving aircraft. The concept with the new bomber is to engineer a next-generation stealth configuration able to evade both surveillance and engagement radar technologies.

USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

The idea is to design a bomber able to fly, operate, and strike anywhere in the world without an enemy even knowing an aircraft is there.  This was the intention of the original B-2 bomber, which functioned in that capacity for many years, until technological advances in air defense made it harder for it to avoid detection completely.

The new aircraft is being engineered to evade increasingly sophisticated air defenses, which now use faster processors, digital networking and sensors to track even stealthy aircraft on a wider range of frequencies at longer ranges. These frequencies include UHF, VHF and X-band, among others.

Stealth Technology

Stealth technology works by engineering an aircraft with external contours and heat signatures designed to elude detection from enemy radar systems. The absence of defined edges,  noticeable heat emissions, weapons hanging on pylons, or other easily detectable aircraft features, radar "pings" have trouble receiving a return electromagnetic signal allowing them to identify an approaching bomber. Since the speed of light (electricity) is known, and the time of travel of electromagnetic signals can be determined as well, computer algorithms are then able to determine the precise distance of an enemy object. However, when it comes to stealth aircraft, the return signal may be either non-existence or of an entirely different character than that of an actual aircraft.

At the same time, advances in air defense technologies are also leading developers to look at stealth configurations as merely one arrow in the quiver of techniques which can be employed to elude enemy defenses, particularly in the case of future fighter aircraft.  New stealthy aircraft will also likely use speed, long-range sensors, and maneuverability as additional tactics intended to evade enemy air defenses - in addition to stealth because stealth configurations alone will increasingly be more challenged as technology continues to advance.

However, stealth technology is itself advancing - and it is being applied to the B-21, according to senior Air Force leaders who naturally did not wish to elaborate on the subject.

Photo from USAF

"As the threat evolves we will be able to evolve the airplane and we will still be able to hold any target at risk" Bunch said.

Although the new image of the B-21 does look somewhat like the existing B-2, Air Force officials maintain the new bomber's stealth technology will far exceed the capabilities of the B-2.

At the same time, the B-2 is being upgraded with a new technology called Defensive Management System, a system which better enables the B-2 to know the location of enemy air defenses.

The B-21 will be built upon what the Air Force calls an "open systems architecture," an engineering technique which designs the platform in a way that allows it to quickly integrate new technologies as they emerge.

"We're building this with an open mission systems architecture. As technology advances and the threat changes, we can build upon the structure.  I can take one component out and put another component in that addresses the threat.  I have the ability to grow the platform," Bunch explained.

A B-1 bomber launching a Long Range Stand Off weapon. Photo from US Navy.

Air Force leaders have said the aircraft will likely be engineered to fly unmanned missions as well as manned missions.

The new aircraft will be designed to have global reach, in part by incorporating a large arsenal of long-range weapons. The B-21 is being engineered to carry existing weapons as well as nuclear bombs and emerging and future weapons, Air Force officials explained. If its arsenal is anything like the B-2, it will like have an ability to drop a range of nuclear weapons, GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions and possibly even the new Air Force nuclear-armed cruise missile now in development called the LRSO - Long Range Stand Off weapon. It is also conceivable, although one does not want to speculate often, that the new bomber will one day be armed with yet-to-be seen weapons technology.

"We're going to have a system that will be able to evolve for the future. It will give national decision authorities a resource that they will be able to use if needed to hold any target that we need to prosecute at risk," Bunch said.

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