First five B-21 stealth bombers now in production with Northrop Grumman

A radar-absorbing stealth coating being applied to a B-2 bomber at Northrop Grumman's Antelope Valley Manufacturing Center
A radar-absorbing stealth coating being applied to a B-2 bomber at Northrop Grumman's Antelope Valley Manufacturing Center

Five B-21 Raiders are currently in production at Northrop Grumman's facility at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, a US Air Force official has confirmed.

The secretary of the air force, Frank Kendall, confirmed the news of the service's new stealth bomber at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference.“As I speak there are now five test aircraft being manufactured on the B-21 production line at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California,” Kendall said. “You will never hear me make optimistic predictions about programs. All programs have risk and the same is true of the B-21, but at this point at least, the program is making good progress to real fielded capability.”The five aircraft, manufactured by Northrop Grumman, will be delivered as part of the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the bomber programme, the period before full rate production begins.

Speaking in June, US Air Force acting acquisition executive, Darlene Costello, revealed the first two units are ready to start testing.

When asked about how complete the stealth bomber’s design is, Costello said: “We have the design. 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.”

It was later clarified that the two B-21s are still in production and may be altered following testing.

When speaking about whether B-21 development can be accelerated, Costello said the priority is “to get through the design, get completed, and not introduce concurrency” in the programme.

“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,” she said.

The programme is on schedule and on budget, it was recently revealed by a top US lawmaker after a briefing on the programme.

Congressman Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said the briefing was “one of the most positive, encouraging things that I’ve had happen to me in the last couple of weeks.”

Smith explained the US Air Force appears to have “learned the lessons” of the over-budget F-35 programme. By contrast, the B-21, being manufactured by Northrop Grumman, is “on time, on budget, and they’re making it work in a very intelligent way.”

The US Air Force wants to acquire at least 145 Raiders from Northrop Grumman, estimated to cost in excess of $90 billion.

In 2010 dollars, USAF said at contract award that it expected the jets to come in at $511 million each. Adjusted to inflation, this would come in at $626 million and in excess of $90 billion for 145 units. However, the contract-award number was calculated against a buy of 100 airplanes – a larger volume of production would naturally drive unit costs lower.

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