Northrop Grumman has launched the first flight test B-21 Raider stealth bomber it is developing for the US Air Force (USAF).
The company’s chief executive officer, Kathy Warden, confirmed this occurred in the second quarter of 2023. The director described the event as another significant milestone in the company’s campaign to attain the B-21’s maiden flight and transition to production.
In this quarter, the company successfully powered on the first prototype aircraft, said Kathy Warden without explaining the term “powered on.” It may involve the activation of all B-21 electronic systems, including auxiliary power devices.
The B-21 was rolled out ceremonially in December 2022. In a few months, motor and taxi evaluations were anticipated to commence. However, there is no information available on this aspect.
During the inaugural flight of the B-21, it will fly from the Air Force Plant 42 factory in California to the nearby Edwards Air Force Base. Here, the testing centre of the US Air Force, AFTC (Air Force Test Center), will conduct tests on all six produced B-21 prototypes.
The B-21’s maiden flight will be from the Air Force Plant 42 in California to the neighbouring Edwards Air Force Base. The Air Force’s testing facility, AFTC (Air Force Test Centre), will undertake tests on all six B-21 prototypes when they are ready.
USAF is expected to award a contract to produce serial B-21s during the initial Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) phase immediately following the maiden flight. LRIP is a standard phase of the acquisition procedure designed to mitigate production risks. During LRIP, serial B-21s must demonstrate the requisite quality and capabilities of production. In return, the manufacturer obtains experience and time to prepare the production ecosystem for Full Rate Production (FRP). During FRP, it is anticipated that 12 B-21s will be produced annually.
By 2028, the Pentagon anticipates spending $13 billion on B-21 research, development, testing, and evaluation. Within LRIP, an additional $20 billion is allocated to produce B-21s by the same date.
Northrop Grumman doesn’t expect to profit during LRIP due to rising inflation and a fixed contract price. A cost-reimbursement contract covers the development and testing phases of the B-21 program. However, the Air Force will procure individual B-21s for a fixed amount of $772 million. To mitigate inflation risks, the company will receive $60 million in the next fiscal year, 2024, starting from October 1, 2023.
The first flight is anticipated to occur by the end of the year, but the exact date has yet to be made available. The motor and taxi tests will indicate that the first flight is imminent. The same procedure was followed for the B-2 Spirit bomber rolled out of the same Plant 42 factory in 1988 and launched nine months later. During its inaugural flight, the B-2 flew to Edwards Air Force Base for further testing.
Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota will become the first Formal Training Unit (FTU) and Main Operating Base (MOB) for the B-21 in 2025. However, it is anticipated that Initial Operational Capability (IOC), defined by the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), will be achieved later.
Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas will house additional B-21s. The former is home to the B-2 Spirit fleet, while the latter is where the supersonic strategic bomber B-1B Lancer is based. Both aircraft were scheduled for retirement by 2030 but are expected to remain in service until a sufficient number of B-21s are available for deployment.
Since the B-1 and B-2 have issues with spare parts, the B-21 and new US military technologies have been designed with an open architecture from the ground up. Additionally, the Air Force controls the B-21’s technical documentation. This allows components from any manufacturer to be used and facilitates ongoing modernisation.
The AFGSC (Air Force Global Strike Command) will operate B-21 Raiders and B-52 Stratofortresses in the future. The AFGSC seeks at least 100 B-21s and 76 B-52 Js with updated engines and radar. These numbers are the bare minimum required to maintain the operational tempo in a future air campaign against an adversary with comparable capabilities.
It has been determined through simple mathematics that, in the event of a conflict with China, the campaign’s initial phase would require the destruction of 100,000 targets. This level of enormous target destruction cannot be achieved using only long-range weapons such as LRHW or Tomahawks due to physical or financial constraints. Only stealth bombers, equipped with precision-guided munitions, can ensure the destruction of such a vast area of a target. B-21 establishes the capability for mass destruction of targets, all within the range of modern adversary air defence systems.
The B-21, including the platform, munitions, and all essential systems, falls under the USAF’s Operational Imperatives (OI) category, which Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall introduced in March 2022.
The seven Operational Imperatives (OI) are designed to acclimatise the USAF to new technologies, ways of thinking, and culture. This strategy aims to improve the Air Force’s deterrence capabilities. The ultimate objective is to dissuade Russia and China from using military force against the US and its allies to achieve their political objectives.
Defining Resilient and Effective Space Warfare Constructs and Architecture is the first OI. It entails creating a robust, effective space warfare system and its underlying architecture.
The second operational initiative is achieving Operationally Optimised Advanced Battle Management Systems (ABMS) / All-Domain Command and Control (AF JADC2). It involves creating sophisticated systems for battle management and executing command and control across all domains.
Defining Next-Generation Air Superiority System (NGAD) is the third OI. This includes the development of a new iteration of air superiority systems to ensure air dominance.
Achieving Targeting and Destruction of Moving Targets at Scale and in Challenging Operational Environments is the fourth Operational Imperative. This requires the development of the capability to target and annihilate mobile targets on a large scale, even in operationally complex environments.
The fifth OI defines Optimally Resilient Basing, Operational Sustainability, and Communications in a Contestable Environment. This involves setting up resilient bases, enhancing operational viability, and enhancing communication in contested environments.
The sixth OI is Defining the B-21 Family of Long-Range Strike Systems. It includes the design of a family of long-range strike-capable systems within the B-21 programme.
Air Force Readiness for Transition to Wartime Operations Against a Peer Competitor is the seventh and final OI. Its purpose is to ensure the Air Force is ready to transition into wartime operations against a competitor with comparable capabilities.
These operational imperatives reflect the strategic objectives of the US Air Force to maintain and improve its capabilities in a global security environment that is becoming increasingly complex and competitive.