First B-21 Raider Test Jet Aims To More Closely Mirror Production Examples
Ahead of the official rollout, Northrop Grumman is confident that its nearly production representative B-21 prototype will streamline testing.
As excitement surrounding the new B-21 stealth bomber’s unveiling this Friday mounts, Tom Jones, president of Northrop Grumman’s Aeronautics Systems unit, is lauding the prototype’s production-representative design. While there’s certainly a lot to anticipate about the B-21, which will be the U.S. Air Force’s first new bomber in over thirty years, Jones has insisted that the aircraft is expected to be especially pivotal in achieving faster acquisition timelines for future programs.
When speaking to Defense News last week, Jones said that Northrop Grumman — who won the contract to develop the B-21 in 2015 — prioritized the Air Force’s desire to conduct flight tests with a production-representative bomber as opposed to an experimental model. This overarching goal was echoed by Air Force Acquisition Chief Andrew Hunter this October when he explained that using a production-representative aircraft to flight test the B-21 “is paying dividends as we look towards first flight.” Essentially, the service hopes that this methodology will shorten the otherwise lengthy testing periods that nonproduction-representative test aircraft typically require.
The program hang-ups that can manifest when most testing is done on a less mature prototype can be detrimental to a project’s development timeline. For example, the preceding B-2 program’s six pre-production prototypes had to undergo relatively significant modifications in order to bring them up to an operational standard after it was decided to do so. Many other developmental aircraft never make it to the front lines at all or require far more reworking only to end up featuring limited capabilities.
Above that, the fidelity of the testing that does occur with these aircraft can be less effective if they deviate substantially from their production successors. This also means more testing for more production-representative aircraft later on. Jones is therefore optimistic that using a B-21 prototype nearly identical to what will eventually be the complete design will set the tone for a future of more rapid and efficient acquisitions.
“My hope is that we see a lot of future acquisitions go that way,” said Jones in his interview with Defense News. “It cuts down time, and [when] you listen to [Air Force] Secretary [Frank] Kendall or other service chiefs, it’s all about speed and getting capabilities to the field.”
Digital testing is among the cutting-edge technologies Northrop Grumman utilized throughout the B-21’s development to ensure that its production run wouldn’t be as truncated as the B-2’s. Like its competitors, the company is well-versed in the realm of digital engineering, which you can read about in detail in this past War Zone feature.
Jones also spoke to Defense One last week where he explained that digital engineering and advanced manufacturing were used as ways to “burn down a lot more risk digitally,” meaning the company was able to make and address mistakes in a virtual environment instead of during flight testing — a luxury that older military development programs haven’t had historically.
For the B-21, Jones explained to Defense News that digital engineering and flight simulations were notably helpful during both the real-world load calibration tests that Northrop Grumman completed in May and in refining the bomber’s notoriously puzzling windscreen configuration.
“I'm hoping as we go forward that future aircraft acquisitions will rely on a lot more high-fidelity, digital models, and emphasize fleshing out to production practices because I think overall, that's probably going to be a better acquisition practice in the long run,” Jones said to Defense One. The B-21's compact flight testing schedule should be a major stress test for this idea.
All told, if everything goes as planned, and that is a big if, the B-21 will be the most advanced aircraft the Air Force has ever put into large-scale production. Jones insisted to both media outlets that the technologies used throughout the stealth bomber’s development, from conception to flight, will make it “the first of the sixth-generation systems.” This includes the B-21’s utilization of open architecture systems, advancements in stealth capabilities, and the addition of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) compatible systems that will allow the bomber to connect with sensors and shooters across all domains, among other breakthroughs.
The morsels of information provided by Jones regarding the B-21’s development will likely have to hold us off until the bomber is officially unveiled this Friday at Northrop Grumman’s facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. While the rollout alone is certainly a milestone, the bomber’s first flight isn’t expected to occur until sometime next year.
In addition to what the Air Force is calling T1, or aircraft number 001, five more pre-production B-21s are currently in various stages of assembly and will be allocated toward the at least 100 total B-21s that the Air Force plans to buy. While it is unclear exactly how many will eventually be purchased, the Defense Department’s 2023 budget request documents show that the Air Force is aiming to spend $19.1 billion on B-21 aircraft between fiscal years 2023 and 2027.
The War Zone will be in attendance for the B-21’s official rollout this Friday, so stay tuned for our coverage of what will be a big chapter in the shadowy stealth bomber’s story and the history of air combat.
Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com