The Weekly Debrief: Will The B-21 Reach First Flight Faster Than Stealth Peers? No.


Credit: Alan Radecki/Northrop Grumman

Northrop Grumman’s first B-21 Raider slipped back under classified cover after the highly publicized Dec. 2 rollout, leaving those outside the program to only guess when the U.S. Air Force’s next stealth bomber will start flying.

Air Force officials have not backed off predictions of a first flight coming later this calendar year, but certain conditions and even a note of doubt have creeped into their statements.

During the Air Warfare Symposium in Colorado Springs two weeks ago, Andrew Hunter, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, provided a platitude instead of a prediction: “The B-21 will fly when it’s ready,” he said. 

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall seemed more reserved during his appearance at the McAleese Summit on March 15. 

“It’s supposed to fly this year. I hope we can hold that schedule. That’s a critical capability,” Kendall said. Later, he acknowledged during the question and answer period that the B-21’s first flight has slipped from the original schedule by a “few months.”

Tracking the Air Force’s original schedule for the B-21 first flight has been a moving target. Former Gen. Stephen Wilson, then-vice chief of staff of the Air Force, said publicly in July 2019 that the B-21 first flight was 863 days away, which implied a specific date of Dec. 3, 2021. The aircraft, of course, did not actually roll out until nearly a year later. 

But Randall Walden, who was then director of the Rapid Capabilities Office, which manages the B-21 program, clarified in October 2019 that the December 2021 prediction by Wilson represented the opening of a window of opportunity for the first flight event. Walden added that the bomber’s first flight would likely happen later, but did not say when the window of opportunity for first flight closed after December 2021. As it currently stands, the program’s original window for first flight appeared to be at least more than a year long—and counting.

Due to the program’s secrecy, comparisons to similar projects may be useful. The first weight optimized Lockheed Martin F-35 flew two years and four months after the critical design review (CDR). The first flight of the Lockheed F-22 came two years and seven months after the same milestone. When Northrop completed the CDR for the B-2A bomber in December 1985, the scheduled called for first flight about two years and 10 months later. But internal delays pushed first flight of the original Northrop stealth bomber to July 1989, or three years and eight months after CDR. Ideally, however, U.S. military officials have tried to fly new stealth aircraft within three years of first flight. 

Northrop completed the CDR for the B-21 in December 2018, putting the program more than four years and four months after the design freeze milestone—and nearly a year and a half beyond the historical norm so far. 

The comparison seems odder given the B-21’s unique acquisition approach. The program is managed by an office with the term “rapid” in its title. U.S. defense officials carefully streamlined the management of the program to help avoid the costly delays that occurred after CDR for the B-2, F-22 and F-35.

By itself, however, the lengthier interval between CDR and first flight for the B-21 does not confirm that the program is in trouble. In the past, U.S. defense officials have emphasized that they structured the B-21 program differently. The F-22 and F-35 did not start testing missions systems for nearly three-four years after first flight. By contrast, the Air Force set a goal to not start B-21 flight testing until the mission systems, such as the radar and electronic warfare suites, were ready to be evaluated on board the aircraft. The added requirement implied a lengthier development process, but possibly a shorter transition from development to production. 

To those outside the program, the development status is still a guessing game. Comparisons to the closest historical programs look bad for the B-21, and Kendall’s admission of a minor delay suggests there are problems. But the program’s secrecy makes it impossible to discern how much that matters. 

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.


1 Comment
"...tried to fly new stealth aircraft within three years of first flight" - What?