Written by Maksim Kazanin; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AK exclusively for SouthFront
Chinese experts search for flaws in American bomber under development
According to workers at the Chinese Modern National Defense and Safety Research Center (MNDSRC), the US Air Force’s B-21 “Raider” strategic bomber is designed with the ability to destroy the Dongfeng-21 and Dongfeng-26 mobile ballistic missile launchers. The Dongfeng-21 and 26 are intended for battle against naval groups 1800-2600 kilometers from the Chinese coastline.
The Chinese analysts note that the B-21’s capabilities include:
- carrying long-range conventional weapons payload for use on strategic targets
- carrying nuclear weapons payload for use on critical defense infrastructure
- high-altitude (20,000 meters and up) detection of ballistic missile launches while on patrol
- destruction of mobile ballistic ground and rail launch systems
- establishment of air corridors through anti-aircraft defense systems over enemy territory
What is the “Raider” capable of?
Tasked with launching conventional strikes against defensive infrastructure, the B-21 strategic bomber will carry out bombardments of airfields, missile bases, radio-electric intelligence centers, control centers, and ammo depots. After breaking through antiaircraft defenses, the B-21 will use onboard radar and laser scans of the Earth’s surface to locate targets. To destroy these targets, it may use small, high intensity bombs (weighing 139 kilograms a piece) and carry up to 90 pieces in its payload.
Chinese experts expect that the B-21’s onboard radar will be a modified version of the AN/APG-77 which is capable of carrying out more than 20 tasks such as elevation tracking, correction of navigation parameters, searching for and identifying targets, safeguarding aerial refueling and bomb release. The AN/APG-77 radar has consistently demonstrated its reliability in conditions of strong radio-electric and magnetic interference and the new version will likely also have jamming capabilities which frees the designers from having to install additional equipment for electronic warfare. In the opinion of Chinese physicists, American designers are developing an ionization system which will surround the aircraft, hiding it completely from radar detection.
The second task of the bomber could be to carry “Long-Range Stand-Off” (LRSO) cruise missiles tipped with either conventional or nuclear warheads. The US Air Force intends to have these weapons operational in 2030. The B-21 payload will probably have capacity for 9 to 18 tons of munitions depending on the type carried.
The third task will be carried out by flying at subsonic speeds (950 kilometers per hour) at high altitudes (over 20 thousand meters) and with the help of the infra-red search and track (IRST) system which was tested on the YAL-1A aircraft carrier laser weapon. It allows for the detection of ballistic rocket launches up to 800 kilometers away.
Chinese experts note that the maximum flight range of the B-21 without refueling is about 9300 kilometers and the radius of a combat patrol is 4600 kilometers. However, to engage targets on the territory of the People’s Republic of China and specifically the southern, eastern, and central zones of the Chinese missile forces, the bombers will have to be based in Guam or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The first option is 2175 nautical miles from Beijing and 2900 nautical miles from the central missile zone in Delingha. The second option leaves open the possibility of flights towards China or Iran. The B-21 could refuel at Elmendorf in Alaska, Hawaii, or in Australia.
According to MNDSRC analysts, at first the B-21 project called for the use of four F-118 GE-100 engines (also used on the F-22). However, for simplicity and to increase the reliability of the fuel system, two F-135 PW-400 engines were chosen. They will deliver a sustained maximum speed of Mach 0.85 – 0.95 and the ability to go to Mach 1.5 for up to 30 minutes.
It is likely that several air-to-air missiles will be included in the payload of the bomber in case it has to defend itself as the B-21 lacks maneuverability in the face of attack by enemy fighters. Chinese experts admit that currently the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) can only intercept enemy aircraft at high altitudes thanks to the Russian SU-30MKK and the SU-30MK2. The Chinese media has stated that the Chengdu J-10 lacks the rate of climb and high flight ceiling necessary to safeguard the air borders of the state from intruders.
A pricey vehicle
Northrop Grumman won the contract to develop the B-21. It is valued at 80 billion dollars, with each aircraft coming in at 564 million dollars (equivalent to five F-35s). The first aircraft should enter service with the US Air Force in 10 years with 80-100 (120 by some sources) planned in total. For comparison, the B-2 Spirit strategic bomber cost 1.157 billion dollars.
In order to reduce development costs, Northrop Grumman designers borrowed parts from other trusted vehicles…
- from the F-35: engine, onboard computer, cockpit hardware (multipurpose display), communication system, navigation (with double back-up), weapons control, life support;
- from the B-2 strategic bomber: radar, landing gear, bomb bay doors, power supply system, pilot bailout system;
- from the F-15E: electrical wiring, fuel system;
- from the F/A-18E/F electronic warfare aircraft: hydraulics.
Several elements of the Boing 737 chassis will also be used. All of this allows for reduced costs in the maintenance of the B-21. The cost of one flight of the B-2 during military operations in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan cost 150 million dollars.
According to PLAAF experts, the takeoff weight is projected to be 120 tons, however, American media reports it to be between 68 – 80 tons, meaning that the bomb payload can vary from 5.5 to 9.1 tons and the radius of combat patrols will not be greater than 4000 kilometers. —- It is worth it to mention that even if the B-21 weighs in at 120 tons, it will still be the lighted strategic bomber in the US Air Force. Chinese experts assume that it will be equipped with a “smart copilot” which will support the pilot with laying the course, situational analysis, weapon choice, and provide voiced notifications about onboard systems.
Keeping the paint from peeling off
Several obstacles stand in the way of American designers which will need to be solved in order to have stealth capabilities or to even be invisible to radar and in the optical spectrum.
It will be necessary to test the quality of new radar absorbing materials which will cover the surface of the bomber. Similar substances lose their properties very quickly in high temperatures and high precipitation, and can be ignited by lightning. Lockheed Martin experts modified their radar absorbent material for the F-35 because they found that it had burned off around the thrusters.
The only facilities where radar absorbent coating can be reapplied are at Whiteman Air Force Base. Air Force specialists regularly “repaint” active B-2s and experiment with chemical formulas to try and find a more durable material since the compounds lose their properties after about 20 flights. Significantly large chips regularly occur in the surface of the fuselage which increases the surface area of the aircraft which is visible to radar.
The B-21 is intended to have not more than 0.7 square meters of radar visible surface, below which an aircraft can operate unseen by modern radars. If an aircraft has 5 square meters of radar visible surface there is no point on sending it on a mission. It will be necessary to store the B-21 in hangars for inspection and repairs to the surface coating.
American chemists must develop a coating which guarantees radar invisibility but also scatters sunlight.
In conclusion we will note that only a few brigades of the Chinese military are equipped with modern very high frequency JY-26 radars capable of detecting aircraft like the B-21, F-22, and F-35 at a range of 500 kilometers.
Maksim Kazanin is an associate professor of regional studies and foreign policy at the Russian State University for the Humanities and a Candidate of Sciences