The First Two B-21 Bombers Are About to Take to the Skies

Now you see it, soon you won't.
Brad Bergan
A depiction of a B-21 Raider in flight.Northrop Grumman

The next generation of stealth bombers is nearly here.

Northrop Grumman is building the first pair of B-21 Raider stealth bombers, and they're about to take to the sky for testing after completing assembly, according to a statement from a U.S. Air Force executive during a meeting of a House Armed Services Subcommittee, according to an initial report from Aerospace Manufacturing.

The design of the B-21 Raiders comes before mass production

The B-21s are both test units, but the U.S. Air Force aims to produce more of these aircraft, to eventually replace the B-1 and B-2 bombers. So far, the service wants 50% more B-21s than it initially thought, which bodes well for Northrop Grumman. Once completed, the new bombers will carry both conventional and nuclear weapons, but first flights aren't slated to happen until 2022.

On the idea of accelerating the development of the B-21 Raiders, the Air Force's Acting Acquisition Executive Darlene Costello said the aircraft are not far enough along for acceleration. To her, the priority is "to get through the design, get completed, and not introduce concurrency" in the project, according to the Aerospace Manufacturing report. "Once we get through design and get the first ones delivered, we can adjust production rates and maybe affect them that way, but we have to get through the engineering with solid discipline."

Costello went on to say the agency has the design completed. "There are two test aircraft built and it will take a while to get through all the testing. And therefore, there could be some changes as a result of the testing." As of writing, the B-21 project hasn't fallen behind schedule or gone over budget, according to a U.S. lawmaker following the briefing, reports Aerospace Manufacturing. A key concern precluding the design phase from accelerating is the need for the U.S. Air Force to pin down plans for the larger fleet.

The US Air Force needs 149 new B-21 Raider bombers

If B-21 development is moved too quickly, concurrency will happen, which isn't necessarily bad. It was the process for the F-35 development, which put pilots into their cockpits more quickly, but this led to an outpouring of hundreds of jets around the world with disparate hardware and software. To make the fleet more uniform, the military had to funnel billions of dollars. Understandably, this is not an experience the service wants to repeat.

Once the fleet of B-21s is complete, the service looks forward to working with a fleet of 225 heavy bombers, nearly 70 more than its current fleet number of 158. As of writing, the present fleet is comprised of 62 B-1 Lancer bombers, 20 B-2 Spirit bombers, and 76 B-52H Stratofortress bombers. While the B-1 and B-2 will be replaced by the B-21s, the B-52H is slated to continue service into the 2040s, and possibly longer. But with the other two bomber models gone, this means the U.S. Air Force needs 149 B-21 Raiders, which means an additional payment to Northrop Grumman, above the initial $665 million (maximum) price tag for each of the 100 aircraft.

In case you missed it, we're living in a time of global transition. While semiconductor shortages put pressure on electronics and auto industries worldwide, the U.S. Senate passed a colossal new tech bill that could be the kick-start of the next industrial revolution. But it seems the military, too, is upgrading across the board, most recently the Air Force, possibly in response to a growing rivalry with the rising economic stardom of China.