(Bloomberg) -- The US Air Force gave a first, carefully controlled glimpse at its B-21 bomber Friday, shedding a bit of the secrecy surrounding the $203 billion program to build a fleet of 100 stealthy warplanes.

“The B-21 looks imposing,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told about 600 invited guests at a Northrop Grumman Corp. plant in Palmdale, California, in an elaborately staged ceremony late in the day to unveil the aircraft. “But what’s under the frame and the space-age coatings is even more impressive.” He said the plane will have unmatched range and stealthiness so that “even the most sophisticated air-defense systems will struggle to detect a B-21 in the sky.”

The Air Force instructed visitors in advance to turn in their mobile phones and that they would be able to see the plane only from at least 75 feet (23 meters) away. Photographers were told they could click away, but only from tightly controlled angles, reflecting the Pentagon’s determination to keep details of the bomber’s technology secret. 

The B-21 will be the successor to the aging B-2 bombers that were built by Northrop starting in the 1980s. The new plane -- designed to carry both nuclear and conventional precision-guided long-range munitions -- is an essential part of the Pentagon’s plan to counter China as the US’s primary global challenger. 

The bomber, expected to be deployed by the middle of the decade, is being designed to be flown by a pilot or remotely and updated digitally. The Air Force has described it as part of a “family of systems, implying that it is the node of a larger, distributed network of sensors and communications, not all of which may have been publicly disclosed,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

Friday’s unveiling will focus scrutiny on plans to start initial production of the bomber even as it’s still in development -- a practice known as concurrency that has shown its flaws in some key defense programs, including the $412 billion F-35 fighter.

For the B-21, the Air Force “has managed it well, using all the mechanisms at its disposal,” Marie Mak, the Government Accountability Office’s director of contracting and national security acquisitions, said in an interview. The service has “put in mitigations to address concurrency, but that still continues to be a challenge and risk that we are watching,” she said.

The rollout “is a major milestone,” Mak said, but “we suspect there will be more challenges when it comes to the flight testing,” and the lessons learned will affect the production line and the procurement budget. The Air Force said the first test flight will occur sometime next year.

Mak, who has monitored the program for years and briefs lawmakers on it, said Air Force estimates of cost, schedule and maintenance are accurate so far.

Extra Funds

In part, that’s because the Air Force has had extra funds to devote to the B-21 after Northrop bid less than expected when it beat Boeing Co. for the contract in 2015. “I think they recognize some of the challenges they had with the B-2’s,” Mak said. She cited the decision to build six test B-21s on the same line that will be used in full production. “That’s good learning,” she said.

The Air Force’s budget for fiscal 2023 requests $1.8 billion in procurement spending for the new bomber and a total of $19.4 billion through fiscal 2027, according to internal budget figures. 

The next-generation stealth bomber is currently estimated to cost at least $203 billion to develop, purchase and operate 100 aircraft over 30 years, according to Air Force estimates provided to Bloomberg News. The figures, calculated in fiscal 2019 dollars, include $25.1 billion for development, $64 billion for production, and $114 billion for 30 years of sustaining and operating a fleet of 100 bombers.

The B-21’s average procurement price per plane has remained below its $550 million target, measured in fiscal 2010 dollars. If adjusted for inflation, the equivalent is about $692 million in fiscal 2022 dollars, Major Joshua Benedetti, an Air Force spokesman, said in a statement.

The real evaluation of the B-21 will begin when test flights provide data on its reduced radar signature, said Rebecca Grant, a veteran aviation analyst and a specialist on the earlier B-2.  “Northrop Grumman has all their experts from five decades of stealth bomber development to call on if needed.”

Already, she said, “they have overcome some issues” and “they’ve made adjustments along the way.” 

“I can see this B-21 targeting just about anything from Chinese navy ships to terrorist compounds to road-mobile missiles and of course, fixed sites,” Grant said.  “That enemy complex Tom Cruise and team attacked in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ was actually a perfect B-21 target set.” 

(Updates with Secretary Austin’s comments at unveiling ceremony starting in second paragraph and first photo of the plane)

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.