The US Air Force (USAF) and Northrop Grumman revealed on September 20 that the B-21 Raider – the air arm’s next-generation stealth bomber – will be formally unveiled to the public for the first time in early December, ahead of the type’s planned first flight in 2023.
The plan was first revealed by Andrew Hunter, the USAF’s acquisition chief, during a roundtable with journalists at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference at National Harbor in Maryland. During which, he outlined that the B-21’s public rollout will take place sometime during the first week of December. Hunter’s comments were cemented by a follow-up announcement by the type’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, with the firm adding that the rollout will take place at the company’s facility in Palmdale, California.
This milestone event will mark the first time the USAF has rolled out a new bomber since it introduced the world to the Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirit at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale in November 1988. Northrop Grumman added that the Raider’s unveiling will be a “historic moment” and would provide an exclusive view of the B-21, which has so far only been depicted in full as a series of digital concept images.
Gen Charles Q Brown Jr, US Air Force Chief of Staff, highlighted the importance of the USAF’s new stealth bomber. “The unveiling of the B-21 Raider will be a historic moment for our Air Force and the nation. We last introduced a new bomber over 30 years ago. As we look to the threats posed by our pacing challenge; we must continue to rapidly modernise. The B-21 Raider will provide formidable combat capability across a range of operations in highly contested environments of the future,” he said.
Northrop Grumman has been working on the B-21 since it was awarded the development contract in October 2015. The company confirmed on September 20 that six B-21 test aircraft are currently in various stages of final assembly at its Palmdale facility and reaffirmed that the type’s first flight is scheduled to take place in 2023 (as was confirmed in May 2022). “The actual timing of first flight will be based on ground test outcomes,” the firm added.
Doug Young, sector vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems, praised the work that has been put into the Raider programme so far. “The B-21 is the most advanced military aircraft ever built and is a product of pioneering innovation and technological excellence. The Raider showcases the dedication and skills of the thousands of people working every day to deliver this aircraft.,” he said.
This sentiment was echoed by Tom Jones, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems. “Northrop Grumman is proud of our partnership with the USAF as we deliver the B-21 Raider, a sixth-generation aircraft optimised for operations in highly contested environments,” he added.
The USAF intends to operate a future fleet of 225 bombers, which will be purely made up of B-21 Raiders and veteran Boeing B-52H Stratofortresses. The Air Force’s current fleet totals 157 aircraft; comprising 20 Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirits, 61 Rockwell B-1B Lancers and 76 B-52Hs, although the accelerated retirement of the first 17 B-1Bs has already begun.
As all of the B-1Bs and B-2As are slated to be retired from service once the B-21 becomes operational, the USAF intends to retain its 76-strong fleet of well-aged B-52Hs. This implies that the USAF would need at least 149 B-21s to make up its planned future force of 225 bombers. At present, no official announcement has been made regarding the total number of Raiders that will be purchased by the USAF, but the air arm states that “at least 100” will be procured.
Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California has been confirmed as the location for the B-21’s initial testing phase. Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota will be the first operational base for the type, with Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and Dyess AFB, Texas, set to be the next installations to receive the new long-range strategic stealth bomber. Dyess and Ellsworth currently play host to the B-1B Lancer, while Whiteman is the home of the USAF’s B-2A Spirit operations.