US Air Force unveils new B-21 Raider stealth bomber today. Here's what we know

An image of the new B-21 raider hidden under a shroud.
An image of the new B-21 raider hidden under a shroud. (Image credit: Northrop Grumman)

The U.S. Air Force will unveil its new B-21 Raider stealth bomber today (Dec. 2).

The B-21 Raider is the Air Force's first new bomber in over 30 years and has been called "the most advanced military aircraft ever built" by its manufacturer, Northrop Grumman. While the stealthy jet will be revealed  at the invite-only, tightly controlled event, the aircraft isn't expected to make its first flight until 2023, according to statements by an Air Force spokesperson given to Air Force Magazine (opens in new tab).

The B-21 Raider will be unveiled at a ceremony at Northrop Grumman's facility in Palmdale, California on Friday (Dec. 2) at 8:00 p.m. EST (0100 GMT on Dec. 3). You can watch the ceremony live on YouTube (opens in new tab) courtesy of Edwards Air Force Base. 

Related: X-37B: The Air Force's mysterious space plane

The B-21 Raider has been described by Northrop Grumman as the "world's first sixth-generation aircraft (opens in new tab)," a term that describes its level of technological sophistication (opens in new tab) relative to other craft. While the definition of what makes a sixth-generation aircraft is still being refined, the B-21 nonetheless stands above other production aircraft in terms of its digital capabilities and its ability to operate in either crewed or uncrewed operations. The bomber will be capable of deploying both nuclear and conventional weapons.

Much remains unknown about the B-21's capabilities, and this will likely be the case for some years to come even after the jet makes its first flight. Nonetheless, there have been some details released to the public ahead of its unveiling. According to a Northrop Grumman fact sheet released on Nov. 29 (opens in new tab), the B-21 will feature "advanced networking capabilities," which likely means that the stealth bomber will be able to coordinate and communicate with other assets including satellites, ground stations and other aircraft that might even include uncrewed long-distance "wingman drones (opens in new tab)" designed specifically for the B-21.

A notional image of the B-21 Raider in flight. (Image credit: USAF)

The most revolutionary feature of the B-21 Raider will likely be its stealth capabilities. Stealth technologies are among some of the most sensitive and classified in the U.S. military's arsenal, so not much is known about the exact stealth systems the bomber will have. For its part, Northrop Grumman has stated simply that that the company is "continuously advancing technology, employing new manufacturing techniques and materials to ensure the B-21 will defeat the anti-access, area-denial systems it will face." 

Much of the B-21's sophistication comes in the form of the software used both in the aircraft itself and in its manufacturing process. Its maker describes it as a "digital bomber" in that much of its design and manufacturing was performed using a software-based "digital twin (opens in new tab)" to help reduce production costs. 

In addition, the Raider will feature an open software architecture that will allow seamless integration of upgraded technologies and capabilities in the future. 

The B-21 Raider was named after the daring April 1942 raid (opens in new tab) on Japan led by Lt. Col. James "Jimmy” Doolittle, which helped turn the tide of the Pacific theater in favor of the allied forces during World War Two.

Northrop Grumman currently has six B-21s in various stages of assembly and testing at its Palmdale plant. The Air Force has estimated that each nuclear-capable B-21 Raider will cost roughly $692 million to procure.

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Brett Tingley
Editor, Space.com

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children.