America’s new stealth fighters arrived on time

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After eight years of development, the US Air Force has finally authorized production of the new Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber.

The move comes just in time. The bomber is the key part of a complex of stealthy reconnaissance strikes that could prove decisive in a major war with China over Taiwan – and that war looks increasingly likely in the wake of the election presidential election in Taiwan in January.

The winner, Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, is a staunch defender of Taiwanese autonomy. Which the Chinese Communist Party of course considers a provocation.

The Western Pacific is warming. The B-21 Batwing, which the Pentagon revealed in a flashy ceremony in December 2022, could serve as a cooler.

But not without a little help. The US Air Force has always considered the subsonic radar-evading B-21 – a high-tech successor to the B-2 stealth bomber of the 1980s – as part of a so-called “family of systems”. Bombers are supposed to work in teams with other aircraft.

The air branch declined to specify exactly what other planes might make up the B-21 “family,” but it’s not hard to guess.

In the years before work was completed on the 132-foot-wingspan Raider, Northrop developed — in secret — a reconnaissance drone that looks almost exactly like the Raider, but without the two-person cockpit. Both types absorb and scatter radar waves to minimize their signature on enemy scopes.

This drone, the RQ-180, flew under the radar – proverbially speaking – until 2013, when Aviation Week journalists Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler revealed its existence and detailed its possible capabilities in a series of popular articles.

We didn’t see an RQ-180 until seven years later. In late 2020, photographer Rob Kolinsky took a photo of an apparent RQ-180 buzzing over California. A year later, another photographer, Michael Fugnit, took a photo of a possible RQ-180 flying over the Philippines.

It’s obvious what the RQ-180 does. We know, because we know what RQ-180 is replace. In recent years, the US Air Force has been in an unseemly rush to retire its long-standing RQ-4 spy drones and even its no longer in-service U-2 manned spy planes.

USAF leaders have justified the removal of the high-flying RQ-4 and U-2 by citing the introduction of new covert systems that match the surveillance capabilities of older planes – and Also have a greater capacity for survival. All of this is to say that the US Air Force is confident that the RQ-180 can safely fly directly over enemy territory to gather imagery and potentially record the location of enemy sensors.

It’s obvious that the RQ-180 is the hunter half of a stealth hunter-killer team, where the killer is the B-21. The drones will spot targets that the bombers can hit with precision-guided cruise missiles and glide bombs. Drones and bombers will be protected by their stealth, as well as the long range of their sensors and munitions.

The combination is powerful. There’s a reason the US Air Force is so optimistic about the B-21. The service aims to acquire at least 100 new bombers, and potentially nearly 200 – enough to replace about 65 older B-2 and B-1 bombers, while increasing the overall long-range bomber fleet, which will also include about 75 Deeply improved B-52 bombers.

The cost of the B-21s alone could exceed $200 billion. Add the cost of a few dozen RQ-180s and thousands of missiles and bombs, and the price of the entire family of systems could be closer to $300 billion.

But few in the US defense establishment question that cost. Rather, the consensus seems to be that the US Air Force should try to find money even for more bombers.

The reason is obvious. Study after study, war game after war game, shows missile-armed bombers are the decisive weapons in any major war against Taiwan. When the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., considered a Chinese invasion of Taiwan early last year, it concluded that U.S. Air Force bombers working in conjunction with U.S. submarines the US Navy could decimate a Chinese invasion fleet and save Taiwan.

Think of the RQ-180-and-B-21 team as a high-tech version of Russia’s family of rudimentary reconnaissance strike systems, responsible for the frequent and bloody missile raids on Ukrainian cities.

The Russian Air Force uses dozens of Cold War-era bombers, armed with equally old cruise missiles. Every few weeks, bombers take off, head toward the Russian-Ukrainian border, and lose their cruise missiles hundreds of miles away.

The raids are inaccurate and indiscriminate – and mostly damage civilian infrastructure and kill and maim civilians. This is of course by choice: Russian policy is to target Ukrainian civilians.

But it is also out of necessity. The Russian reconnaissance and strike complex is heavy on strike and light on reconnaissance, since the Russians have rough analogues of America’s own bombers, but they don’t do it have something like the RQ-180. In other words, they have no way of spotting fleeting targets directly overhead.

With the RQ-180s tracking down the B-21s, the U.S. Air Force should be able to direct its thousands of missiles and glide bombs toward targets of real military value. Namely airfields, headquarters, supply depots and ships supporting a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

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