B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber Is "Starting To Look Like An Airplane"

The Air Force has said that it is aiming for the prototype to take its first flight in December 2021, but that this milestone could be delayed.

USAF

Randy Walden, the Air Force official responsible for managing the B-21 Raider stealth bomber program, recently offered a brief update on the progress that Northrop Grumman is making on the construction of the first prototype, saying it has begun to "look like an airplane." The company is currently building that test aircraft at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California and the Air Force hopes that it could be ready for its first flight by the end of next year, though there have been concerns that this could get pushed back.

Walden, who is also the head of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), offered his comments about the B-21 program while accompanying Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Air Force General Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), on a visit to Northrop Grumman's offices in Melbourne, Florida. This is where the company has its B-21 design and development headquarters, though the production of the actual prototype is taking place at Plant 42. It's unclear exactly when that visit took place, but the Air Force publicly announced it last week.

“The first test aircraft is being built, and it’s starting to look like an airplane," Walden said. "Suppliers from across the country are delivering parts that are coming together now. Aircraft programs will always have a few surprises early on, and we won’t be any different, but overall the B-21 Raider is coming along nicely."

"The progress I saw today further adds to my confidence that the B-21 Raider will preserve our long range strike and penetrating bomber capability,” General Ray added. "We’re excited to get the B-21 Raider to bases in the mid-2020s."

Five years after Northrop Grumman received the contract to design and build the stealth bombers, details about the B-21 remain limited. The Air Force only released new concept art of the aircraft in January, complimenting the one graphic depicting the plane that the service had previously handed out in 2015. You can read The War Zone's full analysis of the design features that can be seen in the newer renderings here.

USAF

One of a series of B-21 renderings that the Air Force released in January 2020. This shows how the aircraft might appear at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, one of three bases set to eventually host operational Raider squadrons. The others are Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

The comments from Walden, who has accompanied other top U.S. defense officials to Melbourne for updates on the B-21 in the past, as well as General Ray, are significant given concerns about possible schedule slips for the program. Last year, the Air Force said that it expected to see the first flight test of the Raider prototype in December 2021, before walking that back and making clear that this was the absolute earliest possible date for that milestone.

“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," Walden had said in October 2019. "Things like large components coming together, integration, ground tests – all the things that lead up to a first flight – have to be accomplished."

At that time, Walden had added that "we do have an airplane in there," referring to Plant 42, but his comments indicating that "large components coming together" was still something yet to happen had suggested that the construction of the prototype was still in a relatively early phase. 

It's worth noting, of course, that the development and production of any advanced stealthy aircraft is a complex affair. We also know that Northrop Grumman built a full-scale, but non-flying "Iron Bird" mockup that has allowed for work to be done on the development and integration of systems that will go into the B-21 without needing an actual prototype. It remains very likely that the company has performed risk reduction work using other platforms or pre-production test articles, as well. 

Whenever the prototype is completed, it is set to head to Edwards Air Force Base, where there has been significant construction already ahead of its arrival. The 420th Flight Test Squadron, which the Air Force reactivated at Edwards last year and has designated the B-21 Combined Test Force, will lead the testing of the aircraft.

USAF

The insignia of the 420th Flight Test Squadron, which is now designated as the B-21 Combined Test Force.

Whatever happens, "we can’t just say we’re going to sneak it out and get a first flight in," Walden had said last year. At least according to the Air Force, the first B-21 prototype is now beginning to take shape towards that end.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com