Northrop Grumman has been contracted by the United States Air Force (USAF) to manufacture an unspecified quantity of B-21 Raider bombers as part of the Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) programme. This demonstrates that the design has reached a mature stage and that the bomber has been successfully tested.
On November 10, 2023, the first B-21 bomber made its first flight. It went straight to the Edwards Air Force Base in California, located nearby, to do its first test flight. Although they confirmed the flight, the United States Air Force gave no additional information or images from the event. This event, which took place in July 1989, was historically significant since it represented the first flight of the B-2 Spirit bomber and the introduction of a new American bomber.
The Raider completed its second known test flight on January 17 at Edwards Air Force Base, from which it took off. Once again, the United States Air Force was short on information. A representative of the United States Air Force confirmed the second flight. However, he stated that the service would not provide additional information regarding the testing programme for operational reasons. This includes the number of flights the aircraft has completed under the programme.
The B-21, currently stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, is most likely going through the standard initial testing performed on modern military aircraft. This testing could include confirming fundamental flying characteristics, aircraft handling, flutter, engine performance, and communication and telemetry required for collecting data from flight tests.
A comparison of the data with computer models follows this. The US Air Force may forgo some flight tests to further reduce costs and speed up the program if the computerised projections are consistent with the early real-world tests. Previously, an attempt was made to use this strategy with the F-35, but it proved unsuccessful. It is now possible to make extremely accurate forecasts of flight characteristics thanks to the development of significantly more complex digital modelling.
The building of five additional “prototypes” of the B-21 is underway. The Raider programme, on the other hand, does not adhere to the conventional “box” purchase method that the Pentagon uses. As an illustration, after the testing period is over, each of the six prototype B-21s will be put into service as operational bombers.
Although the word “mass production” is used figuratively, the production line at the secret Plant 42 aerospace plant in Palmdale, California, has been intended to be capable of mass production from the beginning. The production rate of B-21s is anticipated to be up to 10 aircraft per year.
Before beginning full-rate production (FRP), the typical LRIP acquisition procedure involves manufacturing a small number of aircraft. This ensures that the production techniques and technologies are consistent and high-quality. On the other hand, it allows users to provide feedback and for relatively inexpensive tweaks or additions to the production line and technologies.
In most cases, LRIP starts after having completed exhaustive prototype testing. Because of this, LRIP acts as a transition stage between the development and FRP stages. There is some leeway in the LRIP timeframe. As an illustration, the LRIP for the F-35 started in 2007, but the FRP for the F-35 is scheduled to start this year after seventeen years. One thousand F-35s have already been manufactured under the LRIP. The F-35 itself and the production of the aircraft are still considered to be in the “tuning” phase. Seven years had passed since the first flight of the X-35 demonstration, and the LRIP for the F-35 was initiated.
The low-rate manufacture of B-21 strategic bombers is, of course, a different story. This is because of the logistical challenges involved. To begin LRIP after only two test flights is an extremely exceptional scenario demonstrating a high confidence level in the bomber’s engineering and capabilities. This most likely indicates the tremendous progress made in digital engineering and digital modelling, the digital twin of the aeroplane that was tested in a virtual environment, which enables the reduction or even the elimination of some tests previously carried out solely in the real world.
Rather than following the typical route within the Air Force Life Cycle Management Centre (AFLCMC), the B-21 programme is managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which makes it possible for these unusual development management techniques to be implemented. Therefore, the B-21 may be developed, produced, and deployed without going through the conventional bureaucracy associated with procurement procedures. Furthermore, RCO is accountable for developing and producing X-37B spaceplanes. RCO was created in 2003.
One of the most important strategies that RCO employs is to build prototypes that are as close as possible to production aircraft, using the same production methods and technologies used in mass production. The advancements in digital modelling that have been discussed are perhaps the sole reason for such confidence.
The B-21 LRIP, on the other hand, does not have any further specified information. The price, the number of bombers that have been ordered, the delivery dates, and even the date that the contract will be signed, which is most likely for the end of 2023, are all unclear.