Since its unveiling to the public last year, the US Air Force and industry partner, Northrop Grumman, have been steadily releasing new photos of their new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider.
The sixth generation aircraft is being prepared for its first flight scheduled for later this year. It was announced on 12th September the B-21 has commenced engine runs as part of its ground test programme, an essential milestone as it continues on the path to flight test.
While the new aircraft isn’t expected to be operational and introduced into service for several more years, the first aircraft was formally unveiled by Northrop Grumman at its production facilities in California in December 2022.
In this article, see all the photos released of the secretive aircraft to date (not including image renders released before its physical unveiling.)
The Air Force awarded the B-21 Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract to Northrop Grumman in October 2015. Northrop Grumman’s partners on the programme include Pratt & Whitney, Janicki Industries, Collins Aerospace, GKN Aerospace, BAE Systems and Spirit Aerosystems.
In 2018, the program successfully conducted the weapon systems Critical Design Review, a comprehensive program-wide evaluation of design maturity, stability and risk.
In 2019, the Air Force completed the Strategic Basing Process announcing Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota; Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri; and Dyess Air Force Base, Texas are the preferred locations for B-21 main operating bases.
After completing the Environmental Impact Statement process as required by the National Environmental Policy Act and other regulatory processes, in 2021, the Air Force named Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota as the first B-21 main operating base and location of the Formal Training Unit.
The Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California will host the B-21 Combined Test Force and the Air Force Sustainment Center at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma is the site for depot planning.
Functions and features
The B-21 will be a dual-capable penetrating strike stealth bomber capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions. The B-21 will form the backbone of the future Air Force bomber force consisting of B-21s and B-52s. Designed to operate in tomorrow’s high-end threat environment, the B-21 will play a critical role in ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability.
The B-21 Raider will be a component of a larger family of systems for conventional Long Range Strike, including Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, electronic attack, communication and other capabilities. It will be nuclear capable and designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations. Additionally, it will be able to employ a broad mix of stand-off and direct-attack munitions.
The B-21 is being designed with open systems architecture to reduce integration risk and enable competition for future modernization efforts to allow for the aircraft to evolve as the threat environment changes.
The B-21 Raider is named in honor of the historic Doolittle Raiders, U.S. Army Air Force men who are known for their surprise attack against Japan during World War II on April 18, 1942, which forced the Japanese to recall combat forces for home defense, and boosted morale among Americans and U.S. allies abroad. The designation B-21 recognizes the Raider as the first bomber of the 21st century.
A production-ready test aircraft
One key to the overall strategy established from the outset was to build a production representative first test article. Rather than a prototype, the first test article has been built with rigorous production processes on the same manufacturing line with equal tooling that will be utilised to continue shaping the B-21 fleet. The first test article is equipped with its primary mission systems such as communications and navigation systems.
The decision to build a highly representative test vehicle will allow Northrop Grumman and USAF to conduct a robust flight test campaign and pull discovery left, in alignment with the programme’s execution strategy from the outset.
“The B-21 programme is a prime example of how industry can be a capable partner in providing systems that meet critical needs, efficiently. The first test aircraft was built by our technicians using factory production processes; we’re doing that learning and refining in parallel, which will enable us to get to stable and steady production more quickly,” said Tom Jones, sector president for Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems.
Sustainment in the crosshairs
Beyond focusing on production in the early stages, the programme took sustainment into account during the design phase. In addition to driving efficiency over the long term, this approach also yields more near-term benefits.
“Given Northrop Grumman’s focus on sustainment early in development, the B-21 is much further along on tech data than we would typically expect on a new programme at this point,” said Doug Young, vice president and division general manager, Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems. “Development of content such as product support, materiel readiness and training is well underway, giving B-21 a head start on support and sustainment operations ahead of delivery to the user community.”
Developed with a digital thread over the programme life cycle, the B-21 utilises the latest in digital tools and capabilities from design to development and test, and ultimately in sustainment. This focus on the digital ecosystem coupled with investment in labs and testing facilities has allowed the Northrop Grumman team to digitally model the aircraft performance prior to physical movements or needs.
As the bomber undergoes various ground tests, digital models are outperforming industry standards with twice the accuracy. This is evident in initial testing with the first test article performing as expected; testing of the engines, weapons bay doors, landing gear and control services demonstrated expected results and indicates the effectiveness and value of digital modeling.
The B-21 is the world’s first sixth-generation aircraft, backed by decades of expertise in stealth technology and optimised for the high-end threat environment. With its open architecture and application of cloud technology, the B-21 is built for seamless incorporation of software upgrades and new capabilities.
Northrop Grumman has already demonstrated the Raider will be capable of integrating third party technology, supporting the programme’s focus on modernisation and need to keep the weapon system on the leading edge of future threats.