With the first ground tests, the future strategic bomber of the US Air Force seems closer and closer to the date of its first flight. Northrop Grumman specified that currently, this must always take place in 2023. A hundred planes should then be produced to replace the strategic bombers B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit.
First flight for 2023
The first flight of the B-21 Raider is slowly approaching. Indeed, according to theAir&Space Forces Magazine, the American company Northrop Grumman carried out ground tests, including a start-up of the various systems of the very first prototype of the B-21 Raider strategic bomber. The magazine notably quotes Kathy Warden, CEO of Northrop Grumman:
“We successfully commissioned the first flight test aircraft in the second quarter (from the year 2023). (…) (It’s a) another important step in our campaign to achieve the first flight in transition to production.“
In 2019, although the first aircraft was not yet built, the US Air Force was planning a first flight of a Raider by 2021. The COVID pandemic, however, forced the USAF to postpone the flight for 2022 , or even the end of the year 2022. However, for unspecified reasons, the United States Air Force (USAF) had specified on May 20, 2022 that the first flight was postponed. Currently, 2023 remains the target year for the first flight, as clarified by David Keffer, Head of Finance at Northrop Grumman:
“(…) we remain on track for first flight this year. Again, this timeline continues to depend on events and data over time. We anticipate that the first LRIP contract will be awarded shortly after the first flight.“
This signature is just as important as the first flight: a Low Rate Initial Production contract (LRIP or initial low-rate production contract) should allow the company concerned to have a first order of test aircraft to confirm the performance of the aircraft but also of the entire assembly line before the actual order of production aircraft.
As for the first flight, it will be very short: the first Raider will take off from Plant 42 Air Force Base (California, USA) to land at Edwards Air Force Base (also in California). However, about thirty kilometers separate these two air bases.
The B-21 Raider must ensure the future of nuclear or conventional bombing capabilities on behalf of the USAF. A hundred planes should be ordered to carry out these missions while allowing the retirement of the B-2A Spirit and B-1B Lancer strategic bombers. On the other hand, with retirement planned for 2050 (info at the end of this article), the B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers will not be replaced by this aircraft.
The first aircraft built was presented to the public on December 3, 2023, confirming its resemblance to the B-2 flying wing, or rather, a thoroughly redesigned and modernized version of the B-2 but while keeping an ammunition bay, stealth flight capability and will also be refuelable by flight. These specific capabilities are not yet known but Lieutenant General David Deptula (retired) believed that:
“The B-21 will provide the payload, range, and penetrability that our current force of B-1s, B-52s, and to a lesser extent B-2s cannot.“
The planned hundred bombers will be deployed on three air bases:
- Ellsworth (South Dakota, United States), which will host the first operational copy.
- Whiteman (Missouri, United States), base currently hosting the B-2A Spirit.
- Dyess (Texas, USA)
These three bases currently host units already flying on strategic bombers on behalf of the USAF. Heavy aircraft maintenance will be centralized at Tinker Air Force Base (Oklahoma, USA).