Chinese surveillance from above may make stealth planes obsolete | Opinion

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When Pentagon brass rolled out the bat-shaped B-21 Raider late last year amid self-congratulatory speeches and glowing news reports, they touted it as the ideal deterrent against Beijing’s military ambitions. Projected to cost some $720 million apiece, the airplane was called the ultimate in radar-evading technology, able to carry out conventional and nuclear strikes virtually undetected in China and elsewhere.

As a journalist who covered previous stealth aircraft, the praise evoked disturbing echoes of glaring design flaws. Such missteps initially made the B-21′s predecessor, the Air Force’s B-2 Spirit, less stealthy and more difficult to operate than advertised. Northrop Grumman Corp. built both bombers.

Now, former senior officials involved in the classified B-21′s early development worry the Pentagon is repeating a version of those mistakes, this time by underestimating Beijing’s ability to closely track the latest bomber from space.

Advances in balloon and satellite technology highlight Beijing’s aggressive intelligence gathering, according to retired three-star Gen. Steven Kwast, who helped draft the Air Force’s warfighting strategy and preliminary B-21 performance requirements as the bomber’s design evolved.

Over months of interviews, Kwast and a number of other veteran U.S. weapons experts expressed skepticism about the bomber’s ability to avoid being closely monitored — and potentially targeted — by the latest generation of Chinese earth-observation satellites. Until now, none of their concerns have gone public.

The B-21 Raider likely will be effective penetrating air and ground-based defenses, the experts agree. But evading surveillance by Beijing’s increasingly capable satellites — a threat they say wasn’t part of the plane’s original design and isn’t included in its current specifications — poses tougher challenges.

While the Air Force acknowledges the bomber’s basic technical requirements haven’t changed over roughly a decade, critics point to Beijing’s breakneck advances launching ever-more-capable high-altitude imaging satellites.

“Stealth was good in its time, certainly it gave us an important edge,” Kwast told me. But when “you build something and freeze the requirements … the more time your adversary has to degrade that lead.” Regarding the B-21, he sees China “poised to steal that advantage by making stealth aircraft vulnerable to tracking from above.”

B-21 champions emphasize the value of its “open architecture,” or ability to phase in new hardware and software to combat emerging threats.

Yet if naysayers are right about gaps in stealth capabilities — and they cite publicly available Chinese scientific papers to support some arguments — the B-21′s shortcomings could considerably hurt U.S. national security.

Besides Kwast, B-21 skeptics include a former head of all Pentagon research and a retired senior U.S. space executive.

Some of these experts had access to classified data during preliminary B-21 planning and participated in early program discussions.

Neither the Pentagon nor Congress has publicly addressed the issue of space-based threats to the B-21, though the U.S. is studying ways to track aircraft from orbit.

An Air Force spokesperson said the bomber is intended to “hold any target at risk and continue to do so for decades to come.”

Prime contractor Northrop Grumman, which referred all questions to the Pentagon, has called the B-21 “the most advanced military aircraft ever built.”

The bomber is scheduled to have its first test flight later this year, but it won’t be widely deployed until mid-2030. The Air Force foresees spending at least $80 billion to deploy 100 or more B-21s.

Before and after Northrop Grumman signed the development contract in 2015, according to Kwast and another person familiar with the details, some of the company’s own space experts raised red flags about the bomber’s vulnerability. This small group of company engineers and executives alerted senior management along with Pentagon leaders, and also sought defense research funds. But their concerns weren’t heeded. “It wasn’t a welcome topic among senior policymakers,” Kwast said.

Typical high-earth orbit satellite systems have difficulty pinpointing fast-moving aircraft for timely targeting information. The task requires immense bandwidth and super-fast transmissions to the ground, combined with advanced artificial intelligence.

Traditionally, the U.S. has assumed China lacks such expertise. But “given all the money, talent and political will” Beijing has invested in space, Kwast said, “it’s the height of arrogance to think the Chinese aren’t that good.”

Other prominent experts agree. “It’s certainly reasonable to suppose stealth aircraft can be seen from orbit,” according to the former Pentagon research chief, even if “the Air Force doesn’t like discussing the idea.”

Supporters stress the plane is on schedule and budget, but Kwast says “that relates to industrial efficiency, not military effectiveness.”

With the military and White House already on the defensive from the Chinese balloon drama, critics fear the Pentagon will downplay Chinese threats to the B-21′s usefulness.