Air Force unveils newest stealth bomber aircraft

The Air Force is set to unveil the newest stealth bomber aircraft on December 2.

By Haley Britzky, Ellie Kaufman and Oren Liebermann

(CNN) -- The Air Force on Friday unveiled its newest stealth bomber aircraft, the B-21 Raider, in Palmdale, California. Built by Northrop Grumman, the bomber was named in honor of the "courageous spirit" of airmen who carried out the surprise World War II Doolittle Raid.

The sixth-generation aircraft is expected to help the Air Force "penetrate the toughest defenses for precision strikes anywhere in the world," Northrop Grumman's press release said. Six bombers are currently in "various stages of final assembly" in California, according to the release.

The event on Friday was even more significant given that it marked the first time in more than 30 years a new US bomber has been publicly unveiled since the B-2 Spirit was presented in 1988. While the US originally planned to have a fleet of 132 B-2s, just 21 were ultimately purchased.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin touted the newest US stealth bomber in a speech Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. He called the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider a "major advance for American deterrence" and said it would be the backbone of the US bomber fleet in the future.

Austin, who attended the unveiling of the B-21 in Palmdale, said Saturday that the years ahead would be a "decisive decade" as the US faces competition from China and the threat of Russia. The release of the new bomber comes amid heightened tensions between the US and both China and Russia. Just days ago, the Pentagon released its annual report on China, which said the country has doubled its number of nuclear warheads in a fraction of the time the US expected it to.

By 2035, the report said, China could have roughly 1,500 nuclear warheads -- an "accelerated expansion" of its stockpile, a senior defense official told CNN.

The next years, Austin said Saturday, "will determine whether our children and grandchildren inherit an open world of rules and rights -- or face emboldened autocrats who seek to dominate by force and fear."

The B-21 was designed with that competition in mind. Northrop Grumman's rundown of the new bomber's abilities said that while adversaries "continue to invest in and develop advanced weapons," the B-21 will allow the US to penetrate enemy air defense and hit targets "anywhere in the world."

"America's defense will always be rooted in deterring conflict. So, we are again making it plain to any potential foe: the risk and the cost of aggression far outweigh any conceivable gains," Austin said at the Friday unveiling. "This is deterrence the American way."

While Friday marked the "first time the world's first sixth-generation aircraft (was) seen by the public," Northrop Grumman said, airmen and aircraft enthusiasts alike will have to wait until next year to actually see one in the air.

The first B-21 flight is expected to happen in 2023, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said, though she emphasized that the timing of the first flight "will be data and event, not date, driven."

The Air Force previously said that the new nuclear-capable stealth bomber, which has the ability to carry both nuclear and conventional weapons and which will fall under the Air Force's Global Strike Command, will be "the backbone of the future Air Force bomber force," designed in a way that is ripe for future modernization efforts.

The service named Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, as the home of the B-21 and home to the aircraft's training program. Each aircraft was anticipated to cost $550 million when the price was set in 2010; after adjusting for inflation this year, Stefanek said, the cost of each aircraft, including training materials, support equipment and other components of the bomber, is $692 million. The Air Force plans to purchase at least 100 of the stealth bombers.

"Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will struggle to detect the B-21 in the sky," Austin said at the unveiling.

The B-21 has been built with long-term sustainability and maintainability in mind, Northrop Grumman said in the release. It has also been designed to be rapidly upgraded when future threats demand it -- a process that can often be slowed down by bureaucratic red tape and delayed timelines when it comes to older military aircraft and vehicles.

The bomber won't undergo "block upgrades," according to Northrop Grumman, which is a method of periodically upgrading parts of a system. Instead, the company said new "technology, capabilities and weapons will be seamlessly incorporated" through software upgrades.

"This will ensure the B-21 Raider can continuously meet the evolving threat head on for decades to come," the company said.

Honoring the past

The name "Raider" was submitted by airmen with the 337th Test and Evaluation Squadron out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and beat out more than 2,000 other suggestions. It refers to the April 1942 Doolittle Raid, during which 80 airmen flew a retaliatory mission to bomb Japan just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Led by then-Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle, the airmen flew roughly 650 miles to Japan, bombing military installations, storage facilities and factories, according to the Air Force. But because of limited fuel, they knew it was unlikely they'd make it back to safety as planned.

Instead, the pilots and crew "ditched at sea, bailed out, or crash-landed in China," according to the National Museum of the US Air Force, many reaching safety with the help of Chinese citizens. According to the museum, as many as a quarter of a million Chinese citizens were later executed by the Japanese as punishment for assisting the Americans.

Former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James announced the new bomber's name in 2016 alongside one of the airmen who flew on that World War II mission, retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole, who died in 2019.

"We wanted [to] ensure the aircraft had a strong name airmen could take pride in, especially those who will have the opportunity to fly and maintain the B-21," Lt. Col. Jaime Hernandez, commander of the 337th, said in 2016. "We also wanted to take an element of our history into account, and the story of the Doolittle Raiders embodies just that."

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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