Production Ready B-21 Bomber on Track for First Flight This Year

During a panel discussion at the 2023 Air Force Association (AFA) Air, Space and Cyber conference, Northrop Grumman Aeronautics President Tom Jones said the first B-21 stealth bomber under development for the U.S. Air Force is a production-representative aircraft — not a prototype — that remains on track for its first flight by the end of this year. The AFA panel provided the latest program development updates on the secretive B-21 program since its unveiling in December last year.

The B-21 Raider stealth bomber is the world’s first sixth generation aircraft, being developed as the backbone of the future Air Force bomber force consisting of B-21s and B-52s. Jones and representative from the Air Force on the panel also confirmed that the B-21 has commenced engine runs, a significant milestone in the aircraft’s ground test program. Northrop also released new updated images of the B-21 during the AFA conference.

One key to the overall program strategy established from the outset was to build a production representative first test article. Rather than a prototype, the first B-21 Raider test article has been built with rigorous production processes on the same manufacturing line with equal tooling that will be utilized to continue shaping the B-21 fleet. Unique to aircraft development programs, the first B-21 test article is equipped with its primary mission systems such as communications and navigation systems.

“The jet that’s going to fly this year, for all intents and purposes, is a production jet,” Jones said during the AFA panel. “It’s got all the coating, it’s got the mission systems. It was built using factory processes. It was built with regular work orders by regular factory technicians, not engineers doing a bespoke first article. It was built with original tooling.”

Beyond focusing on production in the early stages of the program, the B-21 program took sustainment into account during the design phase. In addition to driving efficiency over the long term, this approach also yields more near-term benefits.

Doug Young, Vice President and Division General Manager for Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems was also on the AFA panel and confirmed that development of “content such as product support, materiel readiness and training is well underway.”

Developed with a digital thread over the program life cycle, the B-21 Raider utilizes the latest in digital tools and capabilities from design to development and test, and ultimately in sustainment. This focus on the B-21 digital ecosystem coupled with investment in labs and testing facilities has allowed the Northrop Grumman team to digitally model B-21 performance prior to physical movements or needs.

As the B-21 undergoes various ground tests, digital models are outperforming industry standards with twice the accuracy. This is evident in initial testing with the first test article performing as expected; testing of the engines, weapons bay doors, landing gear and control surfaces demonstrated expected results and indicates the effectiveness and value of digital modeling.

Northrop has also already demonstrated B-21’s open system architecture and “application of cloud technology” that has the ability to integrate third party technology, the company said in a statement released following the AFA panel.

The Air Force expects to acquire a minimum of 100 B-21 stealth bombers and is targeting the “mid 2020s” for the aircraft to become operational.