The secretive B-21 bomber program recently completed a preliminary design review, according to a senior U.S. Air Force officer, who said the service is satisfied with the program’s progress. The comments provided one of the first markers of the program status since the Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to begin engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) in October 2015.
“They just finished preliminary design review recently.” The program is “making great progress, and we’re pleased with the way it’s headed,” Gen. Stephen Wilson, Air Force vice chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on March 8.
Wilson responded in the affirmative when Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the committee’s chairman, asked if the bomber program is keeping to its schedule and budget.
The Air Force plans to acquire at least 100 B-21s for an estimated $80 billion, with initial operating capability pegged for the mid-2020s. The tailless, flying-wing aircraft, which the service named the “Raider” last September, will eventually replace B-1B Lancer and B-52H Stratofortress bombers and supplement 66 nuclear-capable B-52H and B-2 bombers as the airborne component of the U.S. nuclear triad. The stealthy B-21 will be capable of penetrating modern air defenses, whereas only 12 percent of the current bomber fleet is “survivable” in highly contested environments, the Air Force says.
In written testimony, Wilson said the Air Force is committed to an average B-21 procurement cost of $562 million in base year 2016 dollars. The service also plans multiple upgrades to both the B-2 and B-52 platforms, with five new-start programs planned for the B-52 in the current fiscal year. “From avionics and weapons upgrades to data link and radar modernization, the B-52 requires significant investment,” Wilson stated. “We must also explore options to replace the B-52’s inefficient legacy engine. If we are to rely on the B-52 until at least 2050, these upgrades are essential.”
In March 2016, the Air Force revealed major suppliers to Northrop Grumman on the B-21 program, including engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. Other named suppliers are Rockwell Collins, Spirit Aerosystems, BAE Systems, GKN Aerospace, Janicki Industries and Orbital ATK. But the service has disclosed little else about the EMD program or its status.
Earlier this year, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, awarded Northrop Grumman a $35.8 million contract amendment to build a new 45,900-sq-ft “coatings facility” at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., where Northrop Grumman originally assembled and periodically repairs coatings on the B-2 Spirit. The January 31 Department of Defense contract announcement specified that work on the new facility is expected to be completed by Dec. 25, 2019, but it did not mention the B-21.
Last summer, Randall Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said that Northrop Grumman will perform some B-21 work at its facility in Melbourne, Fla., according to media reports.