USAF gives update on B-21 Raider as new photos released

The stealth aircraft is scheduled to take its first flight later this year
The stealth aircraft is scheduled to take its first flight later this year

At last week’s Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference, US Air Force and Department of Defense (DoD) leadership discussed the B-21 Raider's development.

The stealth bomber was discussed by leadership in terms of effective programme management, production readiness and early integration of sustainment elements as foundational to the effective delivery of operational capability.

USAF also announced Northrop Grumman has commenced engine runs on the B-21, a significant milestone in the aircraft’s ground testing. While the aircraft's first flight will be a data-driven event, Northrop Grumman says key decisions and strategies are placing the programme in a positive position moving forward.

Below is a recap of the discussions and themes discussed at the show, held at National Harbor, Maryland.

Production representative 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 influencing design

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.”

Sustainment has been a key focus of Northrop Grumman in the aircraft's development

Proven digital model fidelity

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.

Defining sixth-gen capability

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.

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