When the B-21 Raider had its rollout Dec. 2, 2022, in front of 600 VIPs and Northrop Grumman employees who built it, everyone was looking forward to the next milestone: first flight.
But there would be no assembled press for the occasion.
Instead, Antelope Valley plane spotters started posting to social media and texting their friends: without fanfare, the long-awaited bomber was on the wing.
On Nov. 10, 2023 a freelance photojournalist posted a video on X of the stealthy B-21, and the Air Force confirmed that it was indeed the Raider’s first flight.
Now, only three months after first flight, the Department of Defense has green-lit production. In a statement on the company’s website, “the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider has entered low-rate initial production. Our team received the contract award after B-21 entered flight testing within the program baseline schedule. Our production representative test aircraft indicated readiness for production, achieving all flight performance and data requirements.”
Production of the B-21 stealth bomber is moving forward,” DoD undersecretary William LaPlante said in a statement. “This past fall, based on the results of ground and flight tests and the team’s mature plans for manufacturing, I gave the go-ahead to begin producing B-21s.”
The Air Force has said it plans to order 100 of the long-range bombers to replace the aging B-1 Lancer, and the B-2 Spirit, making a two-bomber fleet with the B-21 and re-vamped B-52s. The Air Force has awarded Rolls-Royce the contract for their F130 engine to replace the TF33-PW-103, with work to be done by Boeing, who built the original B-52, according to the USAF website.
According to Northrop Grumman, the B-21 Raider “will provide the United States with a strategic asset capable of penetrating enemy air defenses and reaching targets anywhere in the world — something approximately 90 percent of the nation’s current bomber fleet is incapable of doing.”
United States Air Force strategic planner and former Northrop Grumman analyst Dr. Christopher Bowie was quoted by Forbes from a recent paper that the B-21’s radar signature “should feature a smaller radar signature than the B-2 bomber.” Which could be considerably smaller, considering the USAF has said the B-2 “has the radar cross-section of an insect.”
That stealthiness has given rise to talk about how the B-21 might figure strategically in countering new military build ups in the Asian Pacific region by China and North Korea, and also what bases and allies might host the B-21. A report released this month in London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) identified four possibilities for B-21 locations: Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, and the Royal Australian Air Bases in Darwin, Townsville and Amberley.
“The spread of long-range strike capabilities could play a stabilising role by helping to maintain the regional balance of power, thereby boosting deterrence against any temptation towards military adventurism that may arise in Beijing following China’s advances in conventional- and nuclear-missile technology,” said the IISS report.