With first B-21 flight done, Northrop eyes next contract

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WASHINGTON — The B-21 Raider took to the air for the first time in November, nearly a year after its public debut in California. In 2024, the U.S. Air Force’s next stealth bomber could take even greater steps.

The first Raider, which was unveiled in a highly publicized ceremony in December 2022, flew to Edwards Air Force Base on Nov. 10. It is now undergoing flight testing, which also includes ground tests and taxiing. The Air Force Test Center and the 412th Test Wing’s B-21 Combined Test Force are managing the bomber’s testing program, the service said.

The Air Force has confirmed at least six B-21s are in various stages of construction by Northrop Grumman or are undergoing tests. The program is now in the engineering and manufacturing development phase, the service said in November, and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota is expected to receive its first Raider in the mid-2020s.

The service plans to buy at least 100 B-21s, an advanced stealth bomber, to replace the aging B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers. It will provide the service with new abilities to conduct penetrating deep-strike missions, and the aircraft will be able to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.

Northrop Grumman said throughout 2023 that it expected a contract by the end of the year for the first of five low-rate initial production lots on the B-21. That contract was not issued by press time, but once in place, it will pave the way for the production process to move forward.

Inflation, labor problems and lingering supply chain issues are complicating the B-21 production process and raising cost estimates for low-rate initial production, Northrop officials said in earnings calls during 2023. And the company said it’s not expecting to turn any profit on the B-21 at first, perhaps losing up to $1.2 billion.

The B-21 formal training unit will also be based at Ellsworth. Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas will later receive their own bombers as they become available. Maintenance and sustainment for the B-21 will be largely carried out at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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