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Last week, Northrop Grumman announced that the most advanced, next-generation bomber in the world, the ‘B-21 Raider,’ will be unveiled on December 2. While the aircraft’s first flight would not be conducted until next year, the unveiling date has already caused a frenzy among Chinese military experts.
Since the B-2 Spirit’s introduction in November 1988, the US Air Force has not publicly unveiled a new bomber in 34 years. The initial ground testing for the first B-21 was completed in May.
Northrop Grumman said last month that the timing of the first flight “will be based on ground test outcomes.”
Even though very few details are available about the B-21 Raider as it is a highly classified program, we know that the bomber is a penetrating strike bomber with stealth features and a flying wing design.
Not just that, the B-21 Raider is built to have long-range, extreme resilience and the capability to carry a combination of conventional and nuclear munitions.
According to its manufacturer, it could get past the most formidable defenses to execute precise strikes “anywhere in the world.” The timing of the unveiling is significant as the United States is embroiled in tensions with China in the Indo-Pacific.
China, on its part, is also accelerating the development of its next-gen bomber, which would probably be codenamed H-20.
Meanwhile, Chinese military analysts believe the B-21 Raider may reduce response time against China if deployed to the Pacific. However, it will still be detectable by the PLA, despite its stealth character, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
According to equipment expert Fu Qianshao who spoke to SCMP, the B-21 bomber will have a narrower combat radius and fewer armaments before refueling than the B-2 bomber.
He suggested that it might be based in East Asia, specifically at US military airbases along the first island chain, which stretches from the Japanese archipelago through the northwest Philippines to Borneo.
However, Qianshao claimed that the B-21 would still have trouble breaching China’s defenses because, once it is spotted, it would be intercepted by long-range missiles.
“Even if it operated and went back to the bases in the first island chain, the PLA can strike those airports within our range,” he said.
It is pertinent to note that the PLA is now armed with several long-range missiles like the DF-16 and DF-21. It could even strike the Andersen Base as far as Guam with its DF-26 long-range missile.
Going by the Chinese claims, intercepting and attacking the aircraft won’t be a far-fetched idea if spotted.
In addition to the first island chain, the B-21 could soon appear in Australia. In August this year, US Air Force (USAF) Secretary Frank Kendall indicated that Washington could consider providing Australia B-21 Raider long-range bombers if Canberra requested them. However, the USAF is far from revealing the aircraft’s future deployment details.
Can China Detect B-21 Bomber?
According to Qianshao, the US bomber could be detected by PLA patrols around the self-ruled island. Qianshao’s opinion was seconded by a Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping who stated that the B-21 would find it challenging to escape Chinese military surveillance as the PLA is continually developing anti-stealth capabilities.
At the Zhuhai Air Show 2021, China unveiled the revolutionary YLC-8E radar in what was seen as a significant addition to the People’s Liberation Army’s anti-stealth capabilities.
At the time, it was revealed by open-source intelligence that such a technology would likely work by generating an electromagnetic (EMW) storm which would serve to acquire the location of incoming stealth aircraft.
Then, in August 2022, scientists from China’s Xidian University claimed that they had developed an anti-stealth radar so small that it could be mounted anywhere, even on a rooftop.
In addition to anti-stealth radars whose efficacy has not been verified, a Chinese pilot claimed earlier this year that the J-20 fighter was fully capable of searching and identifying the stealth military planes of other countries – an indirect reference to US F-35 and F-22 stealth jets.
EurAsian Times reached out to our military experts to put the Chinese claims in perspective. Indian Air Force veteran Vijainder K Thakur (retd) said: “The capabilities of the B-21 are not known, so any opinion expressed on its lethality would be presumptuous.
Like the B-2, the B-21 is also shaped for broad-band stealth. But Russia and China have been developing radar systems like the NNIIRT Nebo-M / Nebo-UM / Sky-M Counter Stealth Multi Band Radar System that can fuse and amplify RF reflections to detect and track LO aircraft. Likely, the B-21 will also use active radar cloaking, in which case existing counter stealth radar system would not be effective.”
The veteran added, “A counter tech will eventually emerge for every new tech. Besides radar, there are other means of detection – electro-optical, space-based sensors, and, eventually, photonic radars. I have no doubt the B-21 will give the US an initial advantage, just as the F-22 or the B-2 did.”
Going by Pentagon’s plans, the B-21 and the upgraded version of the 60-year-old B-52 Stratofortress would become the mainstay of the US Bomber fleet. Although it lacks the stealth of the B-21, Boeing’s improvements for the B-52 include new engines, a rebuilt cockpit, and a projected increased armament capacity for longer-range missions.
Chinese military expert Zhang Xuefeng told state-owned Global Times, “These two will form a combination of a high-end and a low-end bomber. The low-end B-52 has little defense penetration capability, and the US Air Force could have it launch the under-development AGM-183 hypersonic missile from outside of enemy defense lines.
But such missiles are expensive and limited in number, so the high-end B-21 will take advantage of its high stealth capability to penetrate hostile defense lines and use cheap munitions like JDAM.”
The report further stated that the B-52 can only fire standoff missiles and will never be able to fly stealthily, regardless of how many improvements it receives. So, by stationing bombers and warships farther from its shores in blue-water areas, China should improve its capacity for long-range detection and long-range interception.
Chinese military experts acknowledge the threat posed by the upcoming bomber, the first of its kind, to Beijing’s national security. China is working on its stealth bomber, H-20, a possible concept teased earlier this year in the form of two mysterious images that appeared online, as previously reported by EurAsian Times.
Germany-based Chinese military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht told EurAsian Times that “we know barely enough for such a statement, and I’m sure in the same way the B-21 has dramatically improved stealth capabilities, it still is not invisible, and any system could eventually be detected and as such intercepted.
However, stealth only makes detection much harder but not impossible. As for the H-20, I won’t be surprised if quite soon after the B-21’s rollout, we’ll get the first glimpse, maybe some artwork, but overall I expect its rollout in 2023.”
The US has recently improved and strengthened its Bomber Task Force (BTF) missions, especially in the European region. It would be appropriate to consider that Beijing has been keenly watching the extent and frequency of these missions, especially close to the theatre of war in Eastern Europe.
With tensions at an all-time high between China and the US and the Asian giant preparing for war, according to its assertions, the stealthy next-gen bomber could either act as a deterrent or a provocation for China. The rest would become apparent once the service announces the deployment.