Monday, February 29, 2016

Meet the new stealth bomber, (not quite) the same as the old stealth bomber

Let's talk about the B-21, a.k.a. the Stealth Aircraft Formerly Known as the LRS-B.

LRS-B, of course, was a somewhat tortured initialism for Long-Range Strike Bomber, with a hyphen thrown into the wrong place for good measure. But the label really said it all, or almost all: It is a bomber designed for long-range strike missions. It's also stealthy, which for some reason didn't make it into the name, but whatever. It's the B-21 now.

It's great to finally see--at least, in an artistic sort of way--what the new plane looks like. But first, I'd like to note that this isn't the first B-21. Nossir! The first was the XB-21, designed in the late 1930s as a medium bomber prototype. Designed by North American Rockwell, it lost a fly-off to the apparently much cheaper B-18 Bolo prototype. It looked like this:

A vision of the future, set way in the past.

The latest B-21, meanwhile, looks like this:

A vision of the future, set in the present, but with echoes of the recent past. It's complicated, OK?

It's a slick looking plane that, it goes without saying, closely resembles the B-2, designed in the 1970s and first flown in the 1980s. It's also made by the same company, Northrop Grumman.

So here's the thing. As an aviation dork, I'm a little disappointed it doesn't look more exotic. I'm not sure what "more exotic" would mean here, to be honest, but as Justice Potter Stewart once said (kind of), I'd know it when I saw it. It's a B-2 with longer wing extensions and no saw-tooth trailing edge. Right?

There is, of course, a reason for that. The whole philosophy behind the LRS-B program was to use "mature" technology--that is, stuff we know works. That doesn't necessarily mean it's all stuff that is unclassified or old news, but it's proven. Which explains the shaping. The B-2's planform is aerodynamically efficient and nearly invisible to radar; why mess with success?

We know literally nothing about the B-21's capabilities at this point (or even how big it is, as the illustration doesn't give a sense of scale), but we can at least infer it is meant to be subsonic. The long wings we see up there provide lift and range, but the ain't made for breaking the sound barrier LINK.

That means what we've got here is an aircraft that looks like the previous generation in stealth, and isn't particularly fast. Is this ground for Panicking That We Have Wasted Money on a White Elephant? No. And here's why... I think.

I have pointed out in the past, with some annoyance, that Russia's and China's stealth entries get a lot of attention to their overall shaping without much consideration to the details. A plane can look stealthy without being stealthy, thanks to stuff like engine nozzles, canards, strakes, and so on. And in the end, it's what's under the hood--high-tech radar, efficient engines, datalinks--that makes a plane top of the line anyway.

And this is where I think the B-21 will necessarily take it to the next generation. Better engines will give it longer legs. Defensive systems like solid-state lasers are, publicly, nearly small and light enough to mount on a large airplane. Weapons are "smarter" and can be released from ever-increasing ranges to hit ever-smaller targets. Networking will probably allow the bomber to control, or work in concert with, a fleet of unmanned aircraft. And there is a very good chance the bomber itself will be "optionally manned"; for high-risk missions, it could be flown remotely, or by a computer.

Oh, and by the way, that -21 designation? That stands for 21st Century. What we see, in other words, may not be what we get, and no matter how much I wanted to see a chrome-plated, atmosphere-skipping SuperMegaBomber, that's probably for the best. If nothing else, it will give me plenty to blog about as more details follow the plane out of the shadows.

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