Development of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider has steadily progressed, and officials at the United States Air Force now expect the bomber to make its first flight in 2023. Testing is currently underway on the first prototype, while the sixth aircraft began assembly at Northrop’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California earlier this year.
“The next major program milestone is first flight of the initial test aircraft, which is projected to occur in 2023,” the Air Force announced via a statement. “The first B-21 flight will be data-driven, not date-driven.”
The United States Air Force, in its fiscal 2023 budget request, has called for $3.254 billion in research, development, test, and evaluation funding for the bomber along with $1.787 billion for procurement. Over five years, the service expects to spend $19.536 billion for B-21 procurement, according to budget documents, Aviation Week reported.
B-21 – Slow and Steady Wins the Race
The Air Force has been direct that it won’t be driven by a hard date, and as a result development of the B-21 Raider, which will eventually replace the service’s fleet of B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit in the coming decade, can’t be rushed.
Lt. Gen. Duke Z. Richardson, the top Air Force acquisition official, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that the B-21 was “on schedule and on budget,” but warned that he has never seen a program that didn’t have unexpected issues.
“The program’s going really, really well. But there’s a lot of work to go,” Richardson told lawmakers. “I don’t know what bumps may come, but there will be bumps along the road, as we finish out the program, and we need to work through them.”
He further said that while he didn’t know of any problems, Congress needs to show some patience.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) praised the B-21 program and said it was “exquisitely run.”
Gen. David S. Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, also told the committee that Air Force cannot attempt to “accelerate” the Raider’s development, but added that the production speed could be increased.
Gen. Richardson agreed that it would be unwise to accelerate the B-21’s development.
“Speed with discipline is our mantra on that program … We’re moving as swiftly as we feel it’s prudent to do,” Richardson explained.
Last month, the Department of the Air Force awarded $108 million to Northrop Grumman for advanced procurement to support the B-21 Raider program. The funds directly support the acquisition of long-lead items needed to build the first lot of the new stealth bombers. The award was meant to reaffirm the U.S. Air Force’s commitment to fielding what is slated to become the backbone of its 21st-century bomber fleet.
Full-scale production of the B-21 could is expected to begin by late 2025 or early 2026. According to recent reports, the Air Force will spend billions to build the B-21 Raiders over the five-year Future Years Defense Plan. The 2015 contract specified that initial production will include 21 aircraft on five lots.
“The B-21 Raider is the stealth bomber the U.S. Air Force needs desperately. The B-52, B-1B, and B-2 Spirit bombers are just too old to serve indefinitely,” explained Harry J. Kazianis, President of the Rogue States Project and a widely respected military expert.
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.
Note: This piece has been updated to reflect expert commentary.