US Air Force Targets First Flight of B-21 Raider This Year

The B-21 Raider was unveiled during a ceremony in Palmdale, Calif., Dec. 2, 2022. Designed to operate in tomorrow's high-end threat environment, the B-21 will play a critical role in ensuring America's enduring airpower capability. (Image: Department of Defense.)

Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force are targeting a first flight of the recently unveiled B-21 Raider stealth bomber this year, although the timeline is dependent upon ground testing, the company has said in the past.

The U.S. Air Force joined Northrop in unveiling what the company describes as the "world's first sixth-generation aircraft" during a ceremony in Palmdale, California on Dec. 2, 2022. While few technical details about the aircraft's performance or technologies have been released, the Air Force expects to acquire a minimum of 100 B-21 Raiders, according to a Department of Defense (DOD) update on the aircraft released last month.

Development on the B-21 Raider began in 2015 when the Air Force awarded the first engineering and manufacturing development contract. The agency has not released a timeline on when the aircraft could expect to be ready for official entry into service.

The B-21 Raider is expected to serve within a larger family of systems for conventional long-range strike, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; electronic attack; communication; and other capabilities. It is nuclear capable and designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations. Additionally, it will be able to employ a broad mix of stand-off and direct-attack munitions.

"Fifty years of advances in low-observable technology have gone into this aircraft," said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, during the unveiling ceremony. "Even the most sophisticated air-defense systems will struggle to detect a B-21 in the sky."

As a dual-capable penetrating strike stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider is capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions. It will be able to support joint and coalition forces across the full spectrum of operations, Austin said, and is also designed to be flexible enough to meet the evolving threat environment. "The Raider was built with open-system architecture, which makes it highly adaptable," Austin said. "As the United States continues to innovate, this bomber will be able to defend our country with new weapons that haven't even been invented yet."

Updates about the B-21’s capabilities released by Northrop Grumman include a description of the B-21 as a digital bomber that will be manufactured using agile software, advanced manufacturing techniques and digital engineering tools. Last year, Northrop Grumman and Air Force demonstrated the migration of B-21 ground systems data to a cloud environment.

This demonstration included the development, deployment and test of a suite of B-21 data, including the B-21 digital twin, that will support B-21 operations and sustainment. This successful test proved the ground systems footprint can be significantly reduced at main operating bases and in deployment packages.

The "B-21" designation, according to the Air Force, was chosen because the aircraft is the first new bomber of the 21st century, while the name "Raider" was chosen to represent the Doolittle Raiders, who flew a surprise attack during World War II.

Ellsworth Air Force Base will be the first Air Force base to receive the B-21. Six B-21 Raiders are in various stages of final assembly and test, according to Northrop.