Northrop’s B-21 is almost here. What’s next for the stealthy bomber?

WASHINGTON — The Dec. 2 rollout of the B-21 Raider will mark the world’s first glimpse at a bomber that manufacturer Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force see as a generational leap in aircraft technology and development.

The B-21 — the Air Force’s first new bomber in more than three decades — will be advanced enough to qualify as a sixth-generation aircraft, Tom Jones, president of Northrop Grumman’s Aeronautics Systems unit, said in a Nov. 22 interview with Defense News.

The technology used in the B-21′s testing — and the Air Force’s decision to conduct its flight tests with a production-representative aircraft instead of an experimental model — could provide a path forward for more rapid, less risky aircraft acquisitions in the future, Jones added.

He explained that the B-21′s advancements in stealth capabilities, use of open-systems architecture, and inclusion of Joint All-Domain Command and Control technologies to share data across platforms will make it “the first of the sixth-gen systems.” JADC2 is the Pentagon’s effort to connect sensors to shooters across domains of warfare.

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The debut of this B-21 — numbered 001 and referred to as T1, for the first flight test aircraft — at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, will mark the beginning of a major phase in the bomber’s development. Since the spring, Northrop Grumman has continued with the first bomber’s testing, final assembly, and application of coatings and paint to get it ready for the public.

Jones said that over the next few months, the first B-21 will undergo additional testing to ensure it’s ready for its first flight. That’s to include powering systems on and off, running its engines, performing taxiing test runs, and other standard integration tests.

The first flight of the B-21 will be to Edwards Air Force Base in California, where further flight tests will take place. The date of that flight is not yet scheduled; Northrop said a date will be based on the results of the ground tests but does expect it to take place sometime in 2023, a few months after the rollout.

Jones hopes the B-21 model of using a production representative aircraft — one that is essentially identical to the eventual production aircraft — for test flights will pave the way for faster acquisitions in the future.

In an October announcement about the B-21 rollout, Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter touted the Air Force’s decision early on to make the flight-test aircraft production representative, saying that it “is paying dividends as we look towards first flight.”

Usually, Jones said, most new aircraft programs have their first flight conducted by a nonproduction-representative aircraft. This can mean lengthy testing periods are required before a program gets to something that is production representative, he added.

But testing with an aircraft that is extremely close to the final production version, and built on the same production line, will speed up the process, he said. “My hope is that we see a lot of future acquisitions go that way,” Jones explained. “It cuts down time, and [when] you listen to [Air Force] Secretary [Frank] Kendall or other service chiefs, it’s all about speed and getting capabilities to the field.”

Jones also pointed to Northrop’s use of digital testing as a way to “burn down risk” and find potential problems with the B-21 in a virtual environment. By conducting virtual tests, he added, the company was able to catch and fix problems before they reached the real world.

For example, he said, the real-world loads calibration tests that Northrop completed in May correlated closely with the digital models it previously conducted. And company engineers used flight simulators and digital environments to fine-tune the Raider’s windscreen.

So far, there are still six B-21s in various stages of development, including the first flight test aircraft. The second complete B-21 is dubbed G1; it will be a ground test aircraft.

Northrop would not say when work on the seventh B-21 will begin.

The unveiling of the B-21 on Friday will be the “grand finale of the day,” Northrop Grumman spokeswoman Katherine Thompson said. The rollout will also include an “advancing aeronautics expo” that features multiple aircraft, including a B-25 Mitchell — the same type of bomber flown by the Doolittle Raiders, for whom the B-21 is named.