The B-21 Stealth Bomber Design Should Have Been No Surprise
Lots of clues before bomber's unveiling
On Feb. 26, the U.S. Air Force revealed the basic design concept — and designation — for its new heavy bomber. The B-21, which Northrop Grumman is developing under a potentially $80-billion contract, looks a lot like the company’s previous bomber, the B-2, albeit with slightly cleaner inlet and trailing-edge layouts.
That surprised some observers, who expected the new Long-Range Strike Bomber to share the diamond-like “cranked-kite” shape of Northrop’s X-47B fighter-size drone demonstrator.
But in fact, there were plenty of clues that the Air Force’s next stealth bomber would be a traditional flying wing. “The B-21 has been designed from the beginning based on a set of requirements that allows the use of existing and mature technology,”Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James stressed.
And the “existing and mature technology” for large, long-range, radar-evading aircraft pointed to a clean flying wing. Independently, all of America’s major warplane-makers — including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which combined efforts in a losing attempt to compete with Northrop for the B-21 contract — had been tinkering with that planform.
Lockheed had experimented with its Polecat drone demonstrator, a stealthy flying-wing with a 90-foot wingspan. The Polecat crashed in 2006. A few years later, Boeing unveiled a concept for a new long-range bomber. Lo and behold, it too was a clean flying wing. Like the Polecat before it and the B-21 that would come later.
In balancing the requirements for a plane to be subsonic and stealthy and to fly long distances while carrying a large payload, all of America’s leading aerospace firms settled on the same basic shape. The B-21 reflects many years of design consensus.