As First B-21 Begins Ground Test, Plan For Uncrewed Teaming Emerges

B-21 concept
The first B-21 Raider has begun ground testing at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, California, facility as the sixth aircraft begins assembly.
Credit: Northrop Grumman concept

The first Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider has rolled off its assembly line and will begin ground testing, just as the U.S. Air Force starts planning for a future uncrewed aircraft that will fly alongside the bomber with extra sensors or weapons.

  • Sixth B-21 begins assembly at Plant 42
  • U.S. Air Force estimates “wingman: to cost at least one-half of a B-21”

Northrop and Air Force officials announced in early March that the first Raider to be used for developmental testing has started load testing and that the company will start powering on the aircraft for initial evaluations in a separate facility from the assembly line in Palmdale, California. Additionally, the company said the sixth B-21 has entered assembly at Plant 42.

“Our first test aircraft has moved from the line and entered formal ground test,” Northrop Grumman Aeronautics President Tom Jones said in a statement. “That’s a testament to the speed and efficiency we’re achieving on the program, in large part due to the partnership we have with our [Rapid Capabilities Office] and [Air Force Global Strike Command] customers and the innovative business practices and digital engineering we’re employing on the program.”

Darlene Costello, the Air Force’s acting assistant secretary for acquisition, says this progress indicates that the B-21 is still on schedule for a rollout this year, to be followed by the bomber’s first flight. “Everything I’m hearing is we’re staying on track,” adds Gen. Arnold Bunch, head of the Air Force Materiel Command.

As the Air Force prepares to bring on the B-21, a team of developmental and operational test pilots is waiting at Edwards AFB, California, with the aim of identifying potential issues as soon as possible, says Maj. Gen. Evan Dertien, commander of the Air Force Test Center. “The goal is to get, as soon as [possible], an operational pilot in there flying it, much earlier on in the program, [and] to start maybe identifying issues,” he says. “But the whole goal is to get that capability tested quicker, get it exposed to a larger environment that’s operationally representative sooner, so we can identify [and] eliminate any early risks.”

As the testing begins, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is ordering research on how the service can develop an uncrewed system to fly with the bomber. As part of a series of operational imperatives, the Air Force in February released a request for information to define the B-21’s “family of systems.”

Kendall says he wants this system to cost about half of the B-21’s estimated $550 million-per-aircraft price tag, which will allow it to be “sacrificed” if that would be operationally useful. That would never be an option with a crewed aircraft, he says. Although that price is still high, Kendall says there needs to be a balance to keep the drone operationally effective.

“I’d love to have it be less than half,” he says. “I’d love to have it be a quarter. . . . At the end of the day, it’s a trade-off.”

The potential system, along with another for the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter, builds on lessons from the Air Force’s Skyborg, DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution program and Boeing’s Loyal Wingman development. Details in the request for information show, however, that the potential aircraft’s capability is beyond much of the current offerings.

“The technologies are there now to introduce uncrewed platforms in this system-of-systems context, but the most cost-effective approach and the operational concepts for this complement to crewed global strike capabilities have to be analyzed and defined,” Kendall says. “One of the things that people often miss about uncrewed systems is that if you’re going to use an autonomous platform with a crewed system, it has to have range capability to go as far as the crewed system goes and support that system with a reasonable payload when it gets there.”

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.