I n the predawn darkness of the western Mojave Desert, workers make their way across a parking lot toward a sprawling complex of factories, hangars and runways. Teams of armed military and civilian guards patrol the grounds leading to the 5,800-acre facility, which is ringed by an elaborate security system and monitored from space by orbiting reconnaissance satellites.
At a fence bristling with razor-wire, the men and women pull key cards from their belt-loop lanyards, flash them on a contact sensor, punch in their numerical codes and push through high-gate turnstiles. Inside, they stow signal-emitting electronics like iPhones and earbuds at a bank of storage shelves, then swipe in at computer monitors to confirm their identities and security clearance. At last, they step onto a gleaming production floor the size of several football fields, a place off-limits to anyone who doesn’t have authorization to the “black world” of U.S. government secrecy known as SAR: Special Access Required.
This is U.S. Air Force Plant 42, where the military’s new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, is built. After nearly a decade in the shadows, the B-21 was presented on Dec. 2 evening to an invitation-only crowd of 3,000, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, top military generals, industry executives and factory workers. The thin gray aircraft resembled a stingray as it glided through the parting hangar doors and artificial fog to applauding visitors, who were stationed 75 feet away and only permitted to view it head-on to maintain a veil of secrecy. Later, Austin spoke about the B-21’s ability to carry “nuclear and conventional munitions” along with future weapons not yet invented. “We are again making it plain to any potential foe: the risks and costs of aggression far outweigh any conceivable gains,” he said.