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Friday, February 11, 2022

Increments in Stealth

Originally published: August 2017

This weekend, I had the opportunity to witness several passes over Delaware's Dover Air Force Base made by a B-2 Spirit, more commonly known as the Stealth Bomber. The aircraft's presence was certainly a highlight of the Thunder Over Dover airshow.

The Northrop Grumman B-2 "Spirit of California" over Delaware, August 26, 2017.

I have always been fascinated by the realm of secret aircraft development, to the extent of climbing Nevada's Tikaboo Peak so I could see the notorious Area 51 with my own eyes – while creating a promotional video for my band at the time, Third Stone Invasion. I've also read a number of books about the famed Lockheed Skunk Works, where revolutionary planes like the SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 Nighthawk were developed in need-to-know secrecy.

Commemorative artwork depicting the top-secret glories of the Skunk Works' past.

The problem with those books is that they all tend to feature the radical angles of the F-117 on their covers. Understandable, as the F-117 stealth attack aircraft is one of the wildest-looking planes to ever fly. But state of the art? Consider that the F-117 has been retired from service for almost a decade.

As the ominous B-2 flew over my head the other day, I couldn't help but wonder, “What's next?” After all, this specific aircraft was the Spirit of California, the second B-2 to enter into service. That happened almost 25 years ago.

It had been some time since I'd looked into developments in this realm, so spurred on by my B-2 encounter I wanted to find out if there was speculation about military aviation being on the verge of wild, radically intimidating new designs.

Screen grab from a 2014 promotional video created by Lockheed to call attention to Skunk Works activities.

What I found was evidence of highly-advanced but incremental progress. The emergence of the F-117 after growing familiar with the planes of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s was startling. But a similar aesthetic shock does not seem to be in store. Lockheed, now publicly promoting its Skunk Works with its very own website - Click here to visit Skunk Works website - presents a video in which the concept of “collaborative systems” is stressed, combining manned and unmanned aircraft. Several of the concepts seen in the video call to mind the spooky shape of the B-2.

Artist conception of the B-21 Raider, with the "21" reflecting the 21st Century.

As for the B-2 itself, its successor is to be the B-21 Raider, both aircraft built by Northrop Grumman. The B-21 is expected to enter into service in 2025, while B-2s will continue to be flown well beyond that date.

Surely there are amazing technologies lurking beneath the skin of the B-21, but what's most interesting on the surface is how much it looks like the B-2. It seems that in this case, they got it right the first time.