Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall announced in fall 2021 that work had begun on five Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider bombers. Progress has moved steadily along, with Air Force Magazine reporting earlier in Feburary that work has now begun on a sixth airframe. With six Raiders now in various stages of production, the B-21 has been described as a "model" program for the United States Air Force.
It was also reported that some of the advanced software that was developed for the new stealth bomber has already been validated through digital testing.
Maj. Gen. Jason R. Armagost, director of strategic plans, programs, and requirements at Air Force Global Strike Command, said during the 2022 Nuclear Deterrence Summit that the bomber is still on track to make its debut flight this year. Other Air Force officials have confirmed that timeline.
"The B-21, going into the future, is going to be our penetrating, get inside the anti-access, area of denial, dual-capable aircraft," said Armagost, according to Air Force Magazine. "There are now six of those in existence. The rollout will probably be sometime this year. I'm not at liberty to give the likely date of that, but [it will be] quickly followed by first flight."
The development of the cutting-edge bomber has been sped up by the utilization of advanced technologies.
"We are capitalizing on the revolution in digitalmodels-based systems engineering, open mission systems architecture software," Armagost said. "As an example, the software for the fuel control system, which is a pretty complex thing, is completely done on an aircraft that hasn't even flown yet as a test article, because of how we’re able to do models-based systems engineering. And they actually built a fuel systems model and tested the software, and the software is ready to go."
The B-21 is not the only aircraft to make use of digital engineering. As The Aviation Geek Club also reported, the technology had played a role in the modernization of the Air Force's bomber fleet. Rolls-Royce North America president and CEO Tom Bell said last year that the company had digitally "built" a B-52 wing with the company's F130 engines installed to demonstrate its advantages and win the contract for the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program.
Development of the B-21 Raider – which will complement and eventually replace the Rockwell B-1 Lancer, Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress – began five years ago in February 2016 when Northrop Grumman initiated the design and build phase of the program.
Progress has moved ahead steadily.
The defense contractor said that its highly skilled workforce has been able to leverage cutting-edge technologies. These include the use of highly-immersive virtual environments, as well as both augmented and virtual reality. This has driven innovation in digital engineering and advanced manufacturing to build the producible, sustainable and maintainable 21st-century bomber.
According to Northrop Grumman, the result will be the most advanced bomber in the world, and "the B-21 Raider will be capable of penetrating the toughest defenses to deliver precision strikes anywhere in the world."
The B-21 Raider's currently confirmed weapons include the JASSM-ER stealthy cruise missile, the 30,000 pound GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator “bunker buster” bomb, and GBU-31 Joint Directed Attack Munition (JDAM) satellite-guided bomb. Additionally, the B-21's armaments suite is being designed with a focus on payload and configuration flexibility to accommodate a wide range of roles and mission requirements, though the full extent of its battlefield capabilities has yet to be revealed.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
Image: U.S. Air Force.