PALMDALE, Calif. — When it came time to deploy the Air Force’s newest stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, the line between public transparency and revealing too much information was barely visible to the naked eye. .
“Below 2 inches,” a Northrop Grumman-jacketed security official told one of the press photographers, whose camera tripod was slightly above the 6-foot guideline, firmly.
“Up an inch, you’re too low,” said another photographer a little later, as dusk turned to night and the natural light faded.
The unveiling of the Northrop Grumman-built bomber at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., on Dec. 2 was a tightly organized event, designed to conceal as much as reveal.
The Air Force set out the security requirements for the ceremony to protect the Raider’s technology and worked with Northrop Grumman — which hosted the event — to make sure everyone knew the settings. In the weeks leading up to the event, officials debated what to show while maintaining security to protect the suicide bomber’s secrets from Chinese or Russian eyes.
The unveiling took place in a highly classified facility, rarely visited by journalists. Uniformed security force airmen and officers from the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations scanned the crowd. Visitors entered through full-height turnstile gates and the fences were topped with barbed wire to prevent intruders from climbing.
It was a stark difference from the last such event, when the B-2 Spirit bomber was revealed at Plant 42 more than three decades ago.
In November 1988, the Air Force launched the B-2 in broad daylight, and the bomber was completely towed out of its hangar. It backfired somewhat, when Aviation Week rented a Cessna and flew over the ceremony to take pictures. The Aviation Week photo showed the B-2 from above for the first time, including its trailing edge — an angle the Air Force hadn’t planned to reveal until much later, and which would have caused much consternation among Edwards Air Force Base officials working on the program.
But on Friday, the ceremony didn’t start until dusk, and the bomber wasn’t shown until sunset. When shown, it was lit with blue light and some artificial fog. And this time the B-21 did not come out of the hangar.
The nightly revelation tableau was not just a dramatic set-up, Heritage Foundation expert John Venable told Defense News on Monday. It may also have served to hide classified details, he said.
When the Air Force released another photo of the B-21 later Friday, it clearly showed the bomber’s skin to be a lighter shade of silver gray. This was not immediately apparent during the ceremony, as the lighting cast much of the bomber, particularly its underside, in shadow.
The B-21 was also towed 75 feet from the riser of the photograph, and its back – including details such as its engines and trailing edge – could not be seen.
Venable expects this level of secrecy to continue for the foreseeable future. And given the level of classification involved with the B-21 and the sensitivity of the program, he said, that’s a good thing.
“They’re going to keep it a secret for as long as they can,” Venable said. “My imagination says they’ll only fly it at night [and] only take it out of the sheds at night, so it will be much more difficult for you to get an idea [of what is on the plane]. You can tell a lot by the fender line, by the entries, by a bunch of other things.
Members of the press had to follow strict guidelines about what equipment they could bring to which sections of the highly classified facility.
For example, iPhones, smartwatches and other mobile devices – with their high resolution and zoomable cameras, video recording and transmission capabilities – were not allowed near the Raider.
Before reporters were allowed into the hangar where the masked Raider sat for a pre-ceremony briefing with Air Force and Northrop Grumman officials, they had to turn off their devices and hand them over to employees of Northrop Grumman, who then enclosed them in secure Yondr pouches. The devices were returned after deployment, outside the ceremonial area.
And the press photographers received a list of requirements for the equipment they could use to fire on the bomber. If anyone tried to evade these rules, they were warned that their cameras would be detained by Northrop Grumman until the Air Force could conduct a security review of the footage.
An uncompromising limit on the size of the camera lens has been set at 50 millimeters, which means there is no zooming in on the aircraft. The riser in the photograph was placed right in the middle, looking straight at the nose of the B-21, with no side view or angle. The cameras had to be mounted on tripods at exactly 6 feet – no higher, no lower. With the 3ft tall riser, which placed the cameras 9ft away, roughly level with the edge where the upper and lower parts of the bomber met.
This sometimes gave a tense scene on the riser, as a photographer of a slightly smaller stature protested that he couldn’t see through the viewfinder if the camera was 6 feet away.
Venable said the height requirement was likely set, so no images were taken that might reveal sensitive aspects of the bomber’s upper or lower surfaces.
“If I had to speculate, it’s that there are openings and there are things that are invisible at the nine-foot line that you would be able to read” with an upper or lower view, Venable said. . “This plane is supposed to be so revolutionary that it must have something worth hiding. The bottom, top and back of the plane will reveal a lot.
And at the end of the ceremony, Northrop Grumman chief executive Kathy Warden hinted that this would be the last public preview of the Raider for quite some time – at least until its maiden flight next year.
“The next time you see this plane, it will be in the air,” Warden said.
Then, as the pulsating music played, the lights went out, the bomber returned to its hangar, and the doors closed, leaving the B-21 in shadow again.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He traveled to the Middle East to cover US Air Force operations.
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