Significant progress has been made with the new Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider long-range strategic stealth bomber, following the revelation that the first two prototypes have now been completed at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.
Confirmation of the completion of the first two B-21 prototypes came on June 8 during a hearing of the House Armed Services sub-committee on projection forces. During which, Darlene Costello – the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Acquisition, Technology and Logistics – provided an update on the Raider programme.
Costello noted that the first two B-21s are now ready for testing but cautioned that it is too early to consider accelerating the programme. However, following the completion of already-announced plans to retire 17 examples of the USAF’s current Rockwell B-1B Lancer fleet, all of the remaining 45 supersonic strategic bombers will continue to serve the air arm until a sufficient number of new B-21s are fully operational. This contradicts previous USAF suggestions that further B-1Bs would be retired before the Raider enters service.
The air force intends to operate a future fleet of 225 bombers, which will be purely made up of B-21s and veteran Boeing B-52H Stratofortresses. The USAF’s current fleet totals 157 aircraft, comprising 20 Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirits, 61 B-1B Lancers and 76 B-52Hs, although the retirement of the 17 B-1Bs has already begun.
As all of the B-2As and B-1Bs are slated for retirement once the B-21 enters operational service, the USAF intends to retain its fleet of 76 B-52Hs. This implies that the USAF will need 149 B-21s to make up the total future force, which is planned to stand at 225 bombers. However, no official announcement has been made on exactly how many Raiders will be purchased by the USAF, with the service only stating that “at least 100” would be produced.
During the June 8 hearing, Lt Gen David S Nahom, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, confirmed the planned future force will total 225 bombers. Frank Kendall, US President Joe Biden’s pick as the next Secretary of the Air Force, recently said that 145 B-21s would be the minimum number of aircraft required by the USAF, which roughly ties in with these figures. In the Fiscal Year 2022 budget request, the USAF asked for US$2.873bn in funding to continue working on the B-21 programme.
The first B-21 prototype will now undergo an extensive ground test campaign before it is formally rolled out early next year, which will be followed by a maiden flight – currently scheduled for mid-2022. It is reported that the second prototype will be used solely as a ground test vehicle. Initial B-21 testing will take place at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California, while the first operational base will be Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota. Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and Dyess AFB, Texas, will be the next installations to take delivery of the new strategic stealth bomber.