America’s new B-21 Raider has 4 big secrets China wants to steal


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The Air Force’s new B-21 Raider stealth bomber that debuted Dec. 2 is safely back in its hangar in California, but you can bet China’s keyboard warriors are furiously clicking away trying to unravel its secrets via cyber-espionage. 

You, me and military officers in China and other bad guy countries all want to know four big secrets about the B-21. 

First, can the B-21 fly without pilots? Original acquisition documents called for the B-21 bomber to be “capable of manned and unmanned operations.” Military drones take the man or woman out to save weight and increase endurance flight time. No one doubts the Air Force pilots can stick it out for long missions. Back in 2001, two B-2 bomber pilots logged a 44-hour mission from Missouri to Afghanistan and back. Bomber pilots train in simulators for 72-hour missions (and you thought the center seat on Southwest Airlines was tough.)  


However, it’s not hard to picture a B-21 in the future on an unmanned mission, high above enemy missile fields, deterring attack by spotting missiles as they come out of hiding. One day the B-21 may be the first warplane fully certified to operate with or without a crew.  

An artist rendering of the proposed B-21 Raider jet above Edwards Air Force Base in California.
(United States Air Force)

Second, how do the hidden engines work? Notice you cannot even see the B-21’s engines. Experts think the B-21 flies with two highly advanced engines, but the glimpse of Raider on Dec. 2 revealed nothing. The technology to embed engines and muffle their heat flow is one of the most-prized secrets of the B-21 Raider. “This is a very, very different design as far as airflow, and there have been some design challenges there,” Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told Defense News back in March 2018. Trust engine supplier Pratt & Whitney of Connecticut to have that all worked out, and keep it more closely guarded than the recipe for Coca-Cola.  

Third, the Chinese, Russians and others are wondering about what type of missions the B-21 can carry out. Upholding the nuclear deterrence triad by training for nuclear weapons delivery will be one vital task. However, the B-21 with its advanced networking is also primed for a range of conventional missions.  


Let me illustrate by way of the movie “Top Gun: Maverick” which, if you are reading this piece, you probably saw. Tom Cruise as Maverick trained Miles Teller’s character Rooster and the other Navy pilots to hit an undeclared nuclear site that was violating all sorts of treaties. (Might be you, Iran!) In the movie, the Navy jets reached their target by flying in low. Then they were jumped by enemy fighters from a nearby base. Gallantry ensued.  


But in my opinion, that was actually a classic stealth bomber target set. A system like the B-21 can approach the target area at high altitude, avoiding detection, then use lots of precision direct attack and/or stand-off weapons, from a better release altitude, to destroy the nuclear site, the runway and any other hardened and buried aim points. Consider the B-21 for “Top Gun III – Maverick vs Xi Jinping,” if you ever produce it, Mr. Cruise.

So, can China crack the secrets of the B-21? We know China will try. At Plant 42 in California, the Air Force says people are found “walking their dogs” along the concertina wire fence at 4 a.m. and little drones “accidentally” crash in the compound. To be sure, the B-21 program is also a major stress test for cybersecurity since many companies supply the program. Still, I’m not worried. The immense secrecy surrounding the B-21 was baked into the program from the start.  


Here’s the fourth item: the B-21 is not the only secret airplane out there. The Air Force flew a prototype of a new stealth fighter in 2020. No official pictures have been revealed, but concept art from the Air Force Research Lab showed an almost alien-looking design for the fighter emphasizing both stealth and high speed. Just as the P-51 Mustang pursuit planes paired with B-17s and B-24s in World War II, the Air Force will have both unmanned wingman drones and a new fighter to go to war with the B-21.  

The new B-21 Raider may have enemies on the watch – but it also has friends.  



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