The B-21 Stealth Bomber Design Should Have Been No Surprise

Lots of clues before bomber's unveiling

The B-21 Stealth Bomber Design Should Have Been No Surprise The B-21 Stealth Bomber Design Should Have Been No Surprise
On Feb. 26, the U.S. Air Force revealed the basic design concept — and designation — for its new heavy bomber. The B-21, which... The B-21 Stealth Bomber Design Should Have Been No Surprise

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.


Polecat. Lockheed Martin photo

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.


Boeing bomber concept. Boeing art

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.

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