The lessons learned from the construction of the first B-21 Raider bomber are being used to improve the second one, which will be used for structural testing.
A second B-21 Raider bomber is under construction at Northrop Grumman’s facility at the United States Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, while the first one slowly takes shape ahead of its expected roll-out in early 2022. This program update was provided by Randall Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, during a recent interview with Air Force Magazine.
The B-21 was previously expected to fly for the first time later this year, in December, however it looks like that the plans changed, with Walden saying that a first flight in mid-2022 is now a “good bet”, adding that the first bomber, even if it didn’t reach the final assembly stage yet, is slowly taking shape and “really starting to look like a bomber”. Maj. Gen. Mark E. Weatherington, commander of the 8th Air Force and of the Joint Global Strike Operations Center at Barksdale Air Force Base, also anticipated this during the Air Force Association Air, Space & Cyber Conference 2020.
As for the second bomber, Walden said that it is being built mainly for structural testing: “The second one is really more about structures, and the overall structural capability. We’ll go in and bend it, we’ll test it to its limits, make sure that the design and the manufacturing and the production line make sense.”
The lessons learned during the building process of the first Raider are being applied to the second one, with the work progressing much more efficiently now that the workers are not restricted anymore to work based just off the blueprint’s assumptions. Also, there has been an increase in the workforce as Boeing 737 MAX workers from Spirit Aviation of Wichita, which is supplying aerostructures for the B-21, were shifted to the B-21 program, avoiding the risk of losing their jobs after the order for the 737 MAX collapsed following two horrific crashes in 2018 and 2019.
This workforce increase also helped to compensate some of the delays caused by the COVID pandemic. Walden mentioned that the program is working with the suppliers to ensure that a slower parts delivery does not delay the aircraft production.
Obviously, even with all the precautions, there could always be some surprises along the way, especially when working on a complex program like the B-21. Walden said that the surprises are expected, and they are ready to solve them as they present themselves. For an instance, one of these surprises was discovered in 2018, when some thrust issues related to the bomber’s inlet and serpentine ducting were noticed and promptly solved, after some basic changes to the design.
The team working on the B-21, however, is trying to anticipate these problems. One of the means used to do this is a business-class jet used as avionics testbed to test hardware and software before transferring them to the B-21, similarly to what Lockheed Martin did with the Cooperative Avionics Testbed aircraft, better known as CATbird, while developing the F-35 Lightning II or the Flying Test Bed used while developing the F-22 Raptor. According to Walden, the jet is flying “real B-21 software”, assessing the integration of sensors and code into the future bomber test fleet, and is making good progress with satisfying results, giving the team “a lot of confidence” about powering up the first aircraft for its maiden flight next year.
The new bomber will be ready for service around 2026 or 2027, according to Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins, Jr., Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. Maj. Gen. Weatherington said during the vASC2020 that the bomber is reported on track and on schedule, even if the first flight has been delayed, and it will also have a reduced unit cost than previously predicted, which however has not been specified. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2018 that the cost of developing and buying the first 100 aircraft should be $80 billion in 2016 dollars. The Air Force plans to get at least 100 Raiders.
The development program is highly secretive, with few info being disclosed. Earlier last year, the Air Force published three new renderings of the B-21, four years after the first one, giving for the first time a glimpse of the shape of the new bomber, which will have a lot of things in common with the B-2 Spirit. You can find a more detailed analysis in this previous article here at The Aviationist.
When it will finally enter service, the B-21 Raider will replace the B-1B Lancer and the B-2A Spirit, while also increasing the bomber fleet from the current 156 to the goal of 220 total bombers. The ability to meet this goal is closely related to the B-21 Raider development, as the Air Force is making sure that the aircraft will be affordable, sustainable and rapidly modifiable/upgradeable and, until the aircraft is ready, the B-1B readiness, the B-52H engine replacement program and the B-2A fleet deterioration.
The B-52H Stratofortress will actually continue to serve alongside the B-21 through 2050, remaining still relevant thanks to the new stand-off capability added with the introduction of hypersonic weapons, but also thanks to major upgrades that will help the bomber to meet the demands of future combat scenarios it may encounter, mainly new engines, radar, weapons, and connectivity. Even if it’s 60 years old, the B-52H fleet is reported to be in very good health, with a 100% mission ready crew status on almost a regular basis.
Recently, the Air Force begun planning for constructions that will support the beddown of the newest Air Force stealth bomber, with the Air Force Civil Engineering Center and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explaining the types, quantities and scale of projects anticipated during a virtual B-21 Industry Day on January 11 at the Rapid City Military Advisory Coalition, including a low-observable restoration facility, a wash rack and general maintenance hangar, and a mission operations planning facility.
The location of the event was not casual, as the nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base (South Dakota) is the preferred location for the first B-21 main operating base, with Dyess AFB (Texas) being the alternative. The Air Force stated that these bases were selected in order to minimize the impact to operations and communities, maximizing at the same time the reuse of existing infrastructure and reducing the overall costs to base the B-21. The final basing decision will be made this year after the completion of the Environmental Impact Statement, giving the green light to begin the actual B-21 beddown construction.