The first B-21 stealth bomber will roll out of its California factory in early 2022 and make its first flight a few months later. The second, nonflying test model is also in assembly. Contracts should be coming soon for constructing hangars and maintenance facilities at operating bases. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the project appears to be on track. But how many Raiders will be built—and at what pace—remains an open question.
The first Raider is “really starting to look like a bomber,” said Randall G. Walden, director of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which manages the highly secretive program, in an exclusive interview with Air Force Magazine.
The B-21 will come out in the open for engine runs, taxi tests, and other necessary ground checks at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., plant in early 2022. The first flight should follow several months later, Walden said. That first flight will be a short, 36-mile hop from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Once there, the 420th Flight Test Squadron will put the bomber to extensive aerial tests.
Earlier forecasts of a December 2021 first flight were a best-case scenario, Walden said. The development team now thinks mid-2022 is “a good bet.”
The second airplane is “really more about … the overall structural capability,” according to Walden. “We’ll go in and bend it, we’ll test it to its limits, [and] make sure that the design and the manufacturing and the production line makes sense.”
Lessons learned in building the first airplane—which Walden noted is not yet in final assembly—are paying off on No. 2, he said. Assembly is “going much faster” than on the first one, and the program is seeing “very high percentages of efficiency, as compared to No. 1.”
The progress on Nos. 1 and 2 is making room for more aircraft on the line, Walden mentioned, although the actual production capacity is a secret. There will be more than two test aircraft, but he declined to say how many. The B-21 contract calls for 21 initial aircraft in five lots.
“We want to make sure we’re efficiently using test ranges, and one way to do that is to have multiple test aircraft available,” Walden noted. In 2015, Air Force officials said the first aircraft will be “usable assets,” suggesting some test airplanes will be later reconfigured into operational machines.
Time of the first flight will be “data driven,” Walden insisted, meaning it will take place only when the aircraft is ready, rather than according to the calendar.
Bomber pilots and maintainers are embedded with the development team to provide insights and feedback on every aspect of the design, said Walden. “Building a future stealth bomber is a complicated endeavor, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure we do that right.”
The B-21 will be able to carry both conventional and nuclear payloads. “We are building the airplane to have the access, range, and payload that is needed for the future high-end fight … as characterized by a highly contested environment,” he said. The goal is to “hold any target at risk,” no matter how well defended. The aircraft must be “effective for a very long time as the threat evolves,” he said, and its open architecture will allow frequent and seamless, “almost … plug-and-play” updates to the B-21’s capabilities.
Structured from the outset to drive down risk, rather than “inventing on schedule,” Walden described exhaustive testing both on the ground and in an airborne avionics laboratory, hosted aboard a business jet-class airplane. The flying lab will shake out sensors and other electronics to ensure they work individually and cooperatively before being installed in an actual B-21. The concept is similar to the concept of the Cooperative Avionics Test Bed—nicknamed “CATbird”—used by Lockheed Martin in developing avionics, apertures, and sensors for the F-35.
“Not having to have the actual test aircraft up there, but a flight test variant with the same systems, does help on the integration aspects on the article itself,” Walden reported. “In the last few months we did another successful end-to-end demonstration … to further mature that hardware and software, and it’s working quite well.”
When it’s time to “power-on and operate these systems on the actual B-21 test article,” Walden said, the team will have “a lot of confidence and a lot of experience” with them.
Although the Raider is still in development, “we view the B-21 as really a production program, not so much just a test program,” Walden explained. To the extent possible, the test aircraft are being built on production tooling, using robots, particularly for composite structures, but also with “touch labor.”
To reduce development risk, the B-21 was conceived to be more about integration than invention, Walden explained. “We have not lost sight of the fact that we have to integrate software and hardware. … We are doing that today.”
The Air Force is “not getting something experimental” in the B-21, former service acquisition chief Will Roper said in a January exit interview with Aviation Week and Space Technology.
The B-21 “is being designed for production innovation, for maintainability and sustainability … and those are the things I’ve tracked the most,” Roper said. The first flight is “in no way, shape or form … just to prove out the flight sciences. … All of that has been worked concurrently.”
The bomber should transition to production at scale “very quickly,” Roper said.
“Stringent nuclear requirements” mean the program won’t move as fast as it might, though. “We are going to try to speed up the nuclear certification process,” Roper told Aviation Week. “Until it’s demonstrated and approved, we simply can’t put the nation’s nuclear deterrent at risk in an experimental prototyping effort.”
There are likely to be development surprises on the B-21, “just like any other” aircraft development program, Walden said. Additional test infrastructure was added early on to ensure the program doesn’t bog down when they occur, he said. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, revealed in 2018 that the B-21 was having problems with airflow and thrust, related to the bomber’s inlet geometry, serpentine air ducts, and exhausts. Walden acknowledged those challenges, and said they’d required a “major redesign.”
“This is a good example of some of those surprises,” Walden said, adding that it’s typical for a complex new aircraft program to have “installed engine inlet/exhaust integration issues that have to be resolved.”
Walden said the issue—the details of which he would not disclose—is now well understood. Changes have been made, and “it looks like we have solved it, and we are moving forward with that final design.”
There were no hiccups in the program attributable to the takeover of engine maker Pratt & Whitney from United Technologies Corp. to Raytheon Technologies, Walden asserted. The change was “transparent,” he said, adding that Northrop is doing a good job managing its subcontractors, and “in this particular case … the engine manufacturers.”
‘Sand in Our Gears’
The COVID-19 pandemic “threw sand in our gears,” Walden said. Challenges continue, and “we’re still not out of it.”
The RCO and Northrop worked with suppliers to ensure that the flow of parts to Palmdale wasn’t badly disrupted. Essential travel was re-sequenced to “work around state and local restrictions” and quarantine requirements, Walden said. The changes seem to be “working quite well,” he added. The program is also making increased use of secure video teleconferencing where possible. “I think we’ve got a new norm, like everybody else out there,” he observed.
At least one opportunity presented itself due to the pandemic. Boeing had to slash orders from Spirit AeroSystems for 737 work due to the slowdown in air travel and ongoing 737 MAX grounding. Spirit and Northrop proposed shifting many of those aerostructures’ workers to the B-21, and the RCO agreed.
“We knew that having additional folks that would [otherwise] be laid off, would help us,” Walden said. A combination of additional “tooling, funding, and the manufacturing really did make the B-21 line more efficient.” Other pandemic-inspired efficiency efforts have been undertaken, but none as “dramatic” as the Spirit move, which Walden said proved “a huge benefit.”
Generally, “we’ve compensated” for COVID delays, Walden said, and they should pose no significant risk to first flight.
The RCO Way
The RCO specializes in quick-turnaround, super-secret projects. Walden said he’s not collected any metrics about how much time has been saved managing a major project like the B-21 “the RCO way,” and he admits some have pressured the program to “go faster and build.”
But, “You’ve got to get the systems engineering right,” he said. Development will take “as much time … as it takes.”
As head of the RCO, Walden has direct access to the Chief of Staff, the only person authorized to make changes to the program, and that minimizes the decision time when choices must be made. “We are more streamlined and less bureaucratic,” he said. “Time delays with staffing documents is minimized.”
Circulating reports among layers of staff at the USAF and the Office of the Secretary of Defense levels might normally take “months on end,” but the RCO can do it in weeks. “If I can cut that time in half, that’s huge. If I can cut it by a tenth, that’s [still] huge.”
The B-21 employs digital tools, but not to the extent envisioned by the Air Force in its push for “digital engineering,” which employs digital models to work out design and engineering challenges before hardware is physically built.
The project has applied computer-aided design and maintainers try out procedures in a virtual setting, Walden said. But “we’re absolutely looking” at how digital twinning and other advanced design techniques could be brought to bear on the program. These techniques could be inserted “on a continuum,” he said, “If it is going to save time, and dollars.”
Likewise, Walden said, artificial intelligence (AI) is not included among B-21 baseline features, but could be incorporated over time. The B-21 was intended to be an “optionally manned” system, the Air Force said in 2015. “We are looking for opportunities” to insert AI, noting that it’s important to understand just what that means. The terms AI and machine learning tend to be used “very loosely,” he said.
“We are not solely focused on just trying to put AI [in], where ‘if you don’t have AI, you’re nothing,’” Walden explained. When “the algorithms are written, we may be able to put it on there, and [it will] be least costly … and not impact any schedule.”
How Many Raiders?
The Air Force says its future force structure requires at least 220 bombers. The service plans to retire the B-1B and B-2 bombers, necking down to just the B-21 and the B-52. There are only 76 B-52s.
But Walden maintains that the goal is to produce “at least 100” bombers, and “right now, no one’s told us to make that change.”
Can the program build more than 100? “Absolutely,” he said, but there is a “maximum” that can be turned out by one production line. If more are desired, Walden needs “some lead time” to add tooling and workers. “You’ve got to factor that in early enough” to anticipate when the planes must be delivered.
He added that while there’s been “a lot of conversation of buying more,” there’s “also been conversations about buying less.”
The future 220-bomber force could include other aircraft. Gen. Timothy M. Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, told Air Force Magazine last year that his command may buy some “attritable aircraft” for long-range strike.
The B-21 production strategy, as it stands, “meets the need” stated by Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), Walden said.
Pentagon and congressional leaders need to understand the limits of B-21 production capacity “so when asked if we [can] do more, we have an answer for the leadership.”
A “beddown industry day” for the B-21 at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., in January showed “we are on [the] path” to delivering jets, Walden said. The event launched the process of building the facilities needed to receive and operate the aircraft.
The Air Force announced in 2018 that today’s bomber bases—Ellsworth, Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, and Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.—will become B-21 bases when they transition from the B-1 and B-2, respectively. AFGSC’s “Bomber Vector” said the B-1 and B-2 would retire in the 2031-2036 time frame. More recent comments suggest it will be sooner.
Walden said the combination of hangar and weapons facilities on the base would cost “roughly a billion dollars … over the next handful of years,” with “$300 million through FY22 alone.” Walden noted that Congress included $10 million to fund a low-observables maintenance hangar at Ellsworth in the fiscal 21 budget; an item that was on USAF’s “unfunded priorities” list.
More industry days hosted by the Air Force and the Army Corps of Engineers are coming, he said.
Walden reiterated the Air Force’s standard line that the B-21 will be available for duty in “the mid-2020s.” However, Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins, deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said on Jan. 14 that the B-21 will start coming online in 2027 or 2028.
During a Heritage Foundation event to discuss the Long-Range Standoff weapon, which will equip the B-52 and B-21, Dawkins said the bomber leg of the nuclear triad would be comprised “of B-52s and B-2s, and in another six or seven years, the B-21.”
The program has “stuck to” saying the first B-21 will be delivered in the mid-2020s, Walden noted. We don’t see any delay … or acceleration” to that.
The 80 Percent Solution
Walden has said he’s a fan of the “80 percent solution;” wherein a new system meets the majority of operator requirements without expending enormous effort and money to obtain extra performance that may only be marginally useful.
The goal of the B-21 is not to “get the perfect aircraft,” he said. The bomber has been designed to be improved as the threat changes. To try to “get it all done up front” means “you … never achieve a production-ready platform,” he asserted.
That said, “I believe we’re doing much better than ‘the 80 percent solution.’” He added that, “80 percent on a new platform is infinitely better than legacy platforms that can’t do the job.” The B-21 now being built is “100 percent of what we want it to be.”