In an op-ed for the Air Force Magazine, Pacific Air Forces Director of Air and Cyber Operations Maj. Gen Scott L. Pleus confirmed that next-generation bomber will have new capabilities for self-defense during flight.
Maj. Gen Scott L. Pleus exposed details of new equipment and new concepts in order to sustain Air Force’s air superiority in the decades to come, adding that “a B-21 that also has air-to-air capabilities”
Previously, the Air Force’s leaders also said that new B-21 Raider is a long-range and highly-survivable aircraft capable of penetrating air defenses and conducting a range of critical missions.
Sources familiar with the development of next-generation bomber said the B-21 Raider would be fitted with advanced radar that will be provided air-to-air capabilities. For air-to-air defense, the new bomber also would be added capability to carry air-to-air missiles.
The B-21 Raider program has a mature and stable design and is now transitioning to manufacturing development of the first test aircraft. Northrop Grumman is utilizing its Melbourne facility for the design and development of the B-21 Raider.
B-21 Raiders with Air to Air Missiles Concept
The Raider is designed to fulfill a similar role the B-2 Spirit in service today – albeit at a fraction of the operational cost, in far larger numbers and with superior survivability and lower maintenance requirements. That is, to be able to deliver heavy payloads to any location on the planet – including bulky nuclear warheads and specialized conventional warheads such as the GBU-57.
Repeatedly highlighted as the bomber’s most vital mission has been the capability to strike targets in Western China, which would necessitate a flight over part of the Pacific Ocean and over some of the most heavily defended airspace on earth to be able to deliver strikes against the People’s Liberation Army’s strategic nuclear assets. Targets include platforms such as the DF-5 and DF-41 intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and DF-26 intermediate-range missiles, which are stationed very far from the country’s coast to provide strategic depth.
The U.S. Air Force has long faced an issue of how to escort the B-21 should it be required to fly long-range missions, with no fighter in service capable of flying an escort mission to Western China and the vast majority facing poor prospects for surviving in such heavily contested territory.
One solution was the development of a third sixth-generation fighter program, alongside those already under development for the Air Force and Navy to replace the F-22 and F-18E respectively, which would have a longer range and would be tailored specifically towards escorting the B-21. This was known as the Air Dominance Fighter.
A second solution recently highlighted, which could be pursued alongside the Air Dominance Fighter or possibly in its stead, is to equip the B-21 with air to air missiles.
While Cold War-era bombers such as the B-29 and B-52 were equipped with gun turrets for defence against enemy fighters and interceptors, since the 1980s there has been little use of such assets with modern variants of the B-52 discarding all anti-aircraft weapons.
The mission requirements of the B-21 however, and the likely very considerable cost of fielding sufficient numbers of sixth-generation Air Dominance Fighters for their escort, have led such capabilities to be reconsidered. Pacific Air Forces Director of Air and Cyber Operations Maj. Gen Scott L. Pleus confirmed that the B-21 would be equipped with an anti-aircraft capability – which would include air to air missiles.
Given the considerable size of the bomber, the added weight of air to air munitions even in large numbers is likely to be negligible – which coupled with the bomber’s powerful sensors and radar-evading capabilities could make it formidable in an air-to-air role.
It is as of yet unclear what types of air to air missiles the B-21 will deploy, but the deployment of the upcoming AIM-260 long-range air to air missiles designed to replace the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently in service remains likely. It is also possible that an entirely new class of air to air missile could be developed for the B-21 – possibly a heavier and more powerful design than those designed for fighters to take advantage of the Raider’s heavier weight and more powerful sensors. It remains unknown whether rival next-generation bomber programs, namely the Chinese H-20 and Russian PAK-DA, are set to deploy similar defensive armaments – or weather differing mission requirements will mean there is little need for this.