Next Milestone for Future B-21 Bomber? First Flight

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Artists concept of the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber (Image: Northrop Grumman Corp.)
Artists concept of the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber (Image: Northrop Grumman Corp.)

The Air Force's stealthy new bomber is getting ready to take its first flight.

"Our next major milestone is first flight," Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force's military deputy to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition at the Pentagon, said of the B-21 Long Range Strategic Bomber program.

During a Senate Armed Services subcommittee on airland hearing Tuesday, Bunch told lawmakers the program has met all developmental checkpoints and is on schedule.

While he didn't reveal when the flight will take place, officials have said the first B-21 is expected to reach initial operating capability in the mid-2020s.

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"We're still in our acquisition thresholds and baselines, and [the B-21] is executing the way we want. … We got past critical design review," Bunch said of the bomber, developed from a clean-sheet design.

In December, the program cleared the developmental milestone. Officials confirmed the Northrop Grumman-made B-21, named the Raider in honor of the World War II Doolittle Raiders, completed its critical design review. It passed its preliminary design review in 2017.

The B-21 will have both nuclear and non-nuclear roles. As a conventional bomber, it will be able to go after multiple targets, but it can carry out only one nuclear drop at a time.

The program is relying on open mission systems and open architecture practices, meaning that different technologies plug into the common management system and communicate with one another, Bunch said Tuesday. The Air Force is also "bringing the warfighter in early," to have pilot input on what is and isn't working, he said.

These moves contribute to the program "making great progress," Bunch said.

Lawmakers had a closed-door program briefing in February and intend to have at least one or two more a year, said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas.

Cotton and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said the sessions help Congress better understand the program's life cycle and to help keep costs in check.

The Air Force awarded Northrop the contract, initially worth $21.4 billion, in 2015. Total costs are expected to exceed $55 billion over the life of the program to procure at least 100 of the Raiders.

Last month, the service picked Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, to be the first operational B-21 base. It will also host the bomber's first formal training unit.

Ellsworth, which currently houses B-1B Lancer bombers, was chosen as the "preferred location" for the B-21 mission. Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, a B-2 Spirit base, and Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, another B-1B base, "will receive B-21 Raiders as they become available," the service said in a news release.

Last year, the service announced it had selected Edwards Air Force Base, California, and Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, to be the lead facilities for test and evaluation and maintenance and sustainment, respectively, for the program.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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