The U.S. Air Force has released a new photorealistic image of the B-21 Raider, showing the long-range stealth bomber taking off from Edwards Air Force Base, California, where it will someday be tested before taking on worldwide operations.
The service on Tuesday posted the photo of the Raider, which sports a squat, sleeker profile than its larger cousin, the B-2 Spirit. Both bombers are made by Northrop Grumman.
Officials have said first deliveries should begin in the mid-2020s, but have been careful not to broadcast too many other details in order to protect details about the B-21's classified technology. The photos, however, give the public a glimpse of what the future bomber will look like.
Unlike previous photo concepts released last year, the latest artist interpretation shows a more defined beak at the front of the aircraft, and an added slanted window alongside the main cockpit windows. The B-2 has four windows that encircle the front of the cockpit.
The Raider's curvature profile within the fuselage, often referred to as the chine, appears sleeker than the B-2, potentially reducing the aircraft's radar cross-section.
The latest rendering follows three released last year. One of those photos showed a B-21 tucked away in a hangar at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, currently a B-1B Lancer base. The second showed the aircraft at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, which currently houses the B-2. The final photo captured the B-21 at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, also a B-1 base. All three locations are expected to host the Raider.
The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 of the new bombers to replace its fleet of B-2s and B-1s, which are scheduled to retire in the early-to-mid 2030s. The B-52 Stratofortress, meanwhile, will be upgraded to fly into the 2050s.
Some officials have estimated that the service needs 220 bombers overall -- 75 B-52s and the rest B-21s.
The Northrop B-21 contract was initially valued at $21.4 billion in 2015. The service first estimated before it had signed any contracts that the Pentagon would spend $550 million per bomber. In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted affordability remain a top requirement in the program so as not to repeat past mistakes with the Spirit. The B-2, conceived in the late 1970s, saw a series of redesign efforts that delayed the program by more than two years and cost taxpayers millions more dollars during production.
In its latest factsheet, the Air Force put the average B-21 cost at $639 million -- or $673 million today due to inflation.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president and analyst at the Teal Group, said that those numbers are only one part of the total purchase price and do not include supporting equipment, among other items. He said "there's always been a degree of doubt about [the final cost of the planes]."
It is a fixed-price contract, meaning that any overages fall to the contractor to cover, so "much of the risk is borne by [Northrop Grumman]," Aboulafia said.
Separately, according to the service's fiscal 2022 budget request, Congress gave the Air Force $2.84 billion toward B-21 research and development costs last year. The service is seeking another $2.87 billion for research and development in the coming fiscal year, the documents state.