America’s new Ghost Hunter killers have arrived at the right time
After eight years of development, the US Air Force has finally authorized production of the new Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber.
This step comes at exactly the right time. The bomber is the key component of a reconnaissance and stealth strike complex that could be decisive in a major war with China over Taiwan — one that appears more likely in the wake of Taiwan’s presidential election in January.
The winner, Lai Cheng-ti, of the current Democratic Progressive Party, is a staunch advocate of Taiwanese autonomy. Which, of course, the Chinese Communist Party considers a provocation.
The western Pacific region is warming. The B-21, which the Pentagon unveiled at a flashy ceremony in December 2022, could serve as a coolant.
But not without a little help. The US Air Force has always viewed the radar-undetectable B-21 – a high-tech successor to the 1980s B-2 stealth bomber – as part of its so-called “family of systems.” Bombers are supposed to work in teams with other aircraft.
The aviation branch declined to specify exactly what other aircraft might make up the B-21 “family,” but it is not difficult to guess.
In the years before Northrop finished work on the 132-foot-wingspan Raider, it had secretly developed a reconnaissance drone that looked just like the Raider, albeit without the two-person cockpit. Both types absorb and scatter radar waves in order to reduce their imprint on enemy ranges.
That drone, the RQ-180, flew under the proverbial radar until 2013, when Aviation Week Journalists Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler uncovered its existence and provided details of its potential abilities in a series of blockbuster articles.
We didn’t actually see the RQ-180 until seven years later. In late 2020, photographer Rob Kolinski captured an image of an RQ-180 flying high over California. A year later, another photographer, Michael Fognett, captured a shot of a possible wing of an RQ-180 over the Philippines.
It’s obvious what the RQ-180 does. We know, because we know what the RQ-180 is replacing. The US Air Force in recent years has been in an indecent rush to retire its long-serving RQ-4 unmanned spy planes and even the longer-serving U-2 manned spy planes.
USAF leaders have justified the grounding of the high-flying RQ-4 and U-2 by pointing to the introduction of new covert systems that match the surveillance capabilities of older aircraft — and also Has greater ability to survive. All of this means that the USAF is confident that the RQ-180 can safely fly directly over enemy territory in order to collect images and potentially record enemy sensor locations.
The RQ-180 is apparently the hunter half of the stealth hunter-killer team, with the killer being the B-21. The drones will identify targets for bombers to hit with precision-guided cruise missiles and glide bombs. Drones and bombers will be protected thanks to their stealth capabilities, as well as the long range of their sensors and munitions.
This combination is a powerful combination. It is no coincidence that the US Air Force is so optimistic about the B-21. The service aims to acquire at least 100 new bombers, and perhaps closer to 200 — enough to replace the 65 or so aging B-2 and B-1 bombers while growing the overall long-range bomber fleet, which will include Also about 75 grenade launchers. Deeply upgraded B-52 bombers.
The cost of the B-21 alone could exceed $200 billion. Add to that the cost of a few dozen RQ-180s plus 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 this cost. There seems to be a consensus that the US Air Force should try to provide the funds necessary to achieve this more From the bombers.
The reason is clear. Study after study, war game after war game, point to missile-armed bombers as the decisive weapons in any major war over Taiwan. When the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., predicted a Chinese invasion of Taiwan early last year, it concluded that US Air Force bombers operating in cooperation with US Navy submarines could destroy the 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 crude reconnaissance strike systems, responsible for frequent and deadly missile raids on Ukrainian cities.
The Russian Air Force flies dozens of Cold War bombers armed with old-fashioned cruise missiles. Every few weeks, bombers take off and head toward the Russian-Ukrainian border, losing their cruise missiles hundreds of miles away.
The raids are imprecise and indiscriminate – often resulting in the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the killing and maiming of civilians. This is optional, of course: Russia’s policy is to target Ukrainian civilians.
But it is also by necessity. The Russian reconnaissance and strike complex is heavy on strikes and light on reconnaissance, because the Russians have approximate analogues of American bombers, but they no Have anything like the RQ-180. In other words, they have no way of detecting passing targets directly above them.
With the RQ-180s searching for the B-21s, the USAF should be able to direct thousands of missiles and glide bombs toward targets of actual military value. These are airports, headquarters, supply depots and ships that support the Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
(Tags for translation)US Air Force