Former Top U.S. Defense Official Questions B-21 Schedule As Air Force Hedges Timeline

The senior Air Force official overseeing the B-21 program says he would not "bet on" the new stealth bomber making its first flight in 2021.

Northrop Grumman concept art of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber.
Northrop Grumman

A former senior U.S. defense department official who played a central role in the establishment of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber program has cast doubt on the likelihood that it will come in on time and on budget. This comes as the Air Force has been working to soften expectations about the B-21's aggressive development schedule, now saying that December 2021 is the absolute earliest date for a prototype to make its first flight, with one official saying he would not "bet on" it.

On Oct. 24, 2019, Aviation Week published a story on the status of the B-21 program, much of which remains top-secret nearly four years after Northrop Grumman received the contract to formally begin work on the bombers and more than a decade after the Air Force initiated what had previously been known as the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program. This piece included comments from Frank Kendall, who, as Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics from 2011 until 2017, had an important role in shaping the schedule for developing and acquiring the Raiders. 

"I’ll be amazed if they get this thing in on schedule and on cost," Kendall had told Aviation Week's Defense Editor and good friend of The War Zone Steve Trimble in September 2019. Kendall's remarks are perhaps unsurprising now given much more reserved assessments from senior Air Force officials about the Raider's development timeline earlier this week. 

"We do have an airplane in there, that would be our test ship number one," Randy Walden, head of the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), told reporters on Oct. 24, 2019, referring to Northrop Grumman's facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. “We’re working the production line, literally, today.” 

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A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber sits outside of Northrop Grumman's Site 4 at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, during a ceremony in August 2019 to mark the 30th anniversary of that aircraft's first flight. The first B-21 prototype is presently under construction at Plant 42.

Walden was speaking at an event that the Air Force Association was hosting in in Washington, D.C. The RCO is in charge of managing the B-21 program. 

“There's a lot of things that have to happen between now and a couple of years, … but in general terms, that's what we're shooting for," he added, referring to the prospective first flight date in December 2021. "Things like large components coming together, integration, ground tests – all the things that lead up to a first flight – have to be accomplished."

U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Stephen Wilson had first publicly disclosed that target date in July 2019, but had stressed "Don’t hold me to it." Walden in his own remarks went even further, saying "I would not bet on that date."

The RCO head also warned that any significant changes in the requirements for the aircraft could lead to delays, but did not indicate that this was likely to occur. "In fact, the chief of staff of the Air Force is the only guy who changes the requirements on the model," he said.

The Air Force continues to insist that the B-21 program is on track, meeting milestones as expected and keeping with established cost estimates. Walden's remarks are some of the first indications that there may at least be concerns about a possible schedule slip, which could also lead to cost increases.

To be fair, a slip in the date for the first flight would not automatically mean that the program, as a whole, is behind schedule or that any potential cost increases would upend existing budget estimates. The B-21 development effort is presently a highly classified Special Access Program, something you can read about more in this recent War Zone feature, meaning that details about its progress remain largely unknown publicly. For instance, the Air Force redacted all of the delivery schedule information from its most recent budget request for the 2020 Fiscal Year, making it harder to assess what impacts any delay in a first flight might have.

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The extent of the information provided about the B-21 delivery schedule in the Air Force's Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request, which it released in Febraury 2019.

What we do know is that the Air Force has been aiming to both begin receiving its first B-21s in the mid-2020s and reach initial operational capability with the aircraft somewhere in that same timeframe. A first flight in late 2021 had already made it clear that the program as working on an extremely aggressive timetable. Pushing that back into 2022 can only put further pressure on that timeline.

Beyond that, designing and building any advanced stealth aircraft is a complicated process and the B-21 is no exception. Last year, Representative Rob Wittman, a Republican from Virginia and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, disclosed that there had been issues with the Raider's air intake and exhaust systems, including its specialized stealthy air inlets. Stealth aircraft require complex ducting to conceal radar reflecting engine components and these are some of the most difficult components to design and manufacture. 

Northrop Grumman had told The War Zone and other defense reporters earlier this year on the sidelines of an event marking the 30th anniversary of the B-2 stealth bomber's first flight that it was leveraging experience from that program, as well as others, to reduce risk on the B-21. The company has been a leader in advanced automated aircraft production techniques, including employing robotic systems to perform some of the work on the stealthy air intakes on Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Northrop Grumman builds the center fuselage sections for all three F-35 variants at Plant 42.

Representative Wittman had also revealed that Northrop Grumman had already built a full-scale, non-flying "Iron Bird" systems configuration model of the B-21 to help with the aircraft's development. It is also very likely that the company has used other aircraft or pre-production test articles for risk reduction work in the past. 

The Air Force is certainly moving ahead with preparations to host the B-21's initial testing at Edward Air Force Base in California and there has been significant new construction in recent years that is related to the program and others associated with it. The service formally re-activated the 420th Flight Test Squadron there on Oct. 4, 2019. 

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The insignia of the 420th Flight Test Squadron.

This unit had previously served as the B-2 Combined Test Force between 1989 and 1997. There is evidence that the B-21 Combined Test Force had already begun forming sometime in 2018.

Walden did say that the Air Force was hoping to open up more about the B-21 in the near term and that there may be new concept art of the aircraft coming soon. The rollout event for the aircraft, whenever it might occur, will also be open to the press. "We can’t just say we’re going to sneak it out and get a first flight in," Walden said.

So, whatever the actual prospective schedule for that first flight might be at the moment, hopefully, we will begin to learn more about America's next stealth bomber soon, after years of extreme secrecy.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com