The Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider is an American strategic bomber under development for the United States Air Force (USAF) by Northrop Grumman. As part of the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program, it is to be an advanced, very long-range, large, heavy-payload stealth intercontinental strategic bomber for the USAF, able to deliver conventional and thermonuclear weapons.
As of 2021, the bomber was expected to enter service by 2026–27. It is to complement existing Rockwell B-1 Lancer, Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber fleets in U.S. service, and eventually replace these bombers.
A request for proposal (RFP) to develop the aircraft was issued in July 2014. The Air Force's initial plans were to acquire 80 to 100 LRS-B aircraft at a cost of $550 million per unit (2010) and envisions some 175 to 200 to be in service eventually. A development contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman in October 2015. A media report states that the bomber could also be used as an intelligence gatherer, battle manager, and interceptor aircraft.
At the 2016 Air Warfare Symposium, the LRS-B was formally designated "B-21", signifying the aircraft as the 21st century's first bomber. Then-Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James stated that the B-21 is a fifth-generation global precision attack platform that will give the United States networked sensor-shoot capability, thus holding targets at risk. The head of the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command expects that 100 B-21 bombers will be the minimum ordered and envisions some 175–200 bombers in service. Two internal USAF studies suggest that Air Force could increase its B-21 purchase from between 80 and 100 to as many as 145 aircraft. Initial operating capability (IOC) is expected to be reached by 2030.
In March 2016, the USAF announced seven tier-one suppliers for the program: Pratt & Whitney; BAE Systems of Nashua, New Hampshire; Spirit AeroSystems of Wichita, Kansas; Orbital ATK of Clearfield, Utah, and Dayton, Ohio; Rockwell Collins of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; GKN Aerospace of St Louis, Missouri; and Janicki Industries of Sedro-Woolley, Washington.
The F-35 program manager Chris Bogdan stated that the commonality of the B-21's engines should reduce the cost of the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. The B-21 will be designed from the start with an open systems architecture.
In April 2016, it was reported that the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) expected the required number to increase to a minimum of 100 B-21s.
In July 2016, the U.S. Air Force stated they would not release the estimated cost for the B-21 contract with Northrop Grumman, arguing that releasing the cost would reveal too much information about the classified project to potential adversaries. The United States Senate Committee on Armed Services also voted to not publicly release the program's cost, restricting the information to congressional defense committees over the objections of a bipartisan group of legislators led by the committee's chairman, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Senator McCain's proposed revisions to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2017 would have reduced authorization for the B-21 program by $302 million "due to a lower than expected contract award value", while requiring "strict ... program baseline and cost control thresholds", "quarterly program performance reports", and "disclosure of the engineering and manufacturing development total contract award value".
On 19 September 2016, the B-21 was formally named "Raider" in honor of the Doolittle Raiders. The then-remaining survivor of the Doolittle Raiders, retired Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, was present at the naming ceremony at the Air Force Association conference.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on 25 October 2016 that sustained the Air Force's decision to award the LRS-B contract to Northrop Grumman. The GAO revealed that cost was the deciding factor in selecting Northrop Grumman over the Boeing and Lockheed Martin team.
The Air Force is planning to acquire a new long-range fighter, known as "Penetrating Counter-Air", that would accompany the B-21 Raider deep into enemy territory. The new fighter, of which few details are known, would help the bomber survive enemy air defenses.
The program completed its critical design review (CDR) in December 2018.
Final assembly of the B-21 is expected to take place at United States Air Force Plant 42 near Palmdale, California, at the same facility used during the 1980s and 1990s for Northrop B-2 production. Northrop Grumman was awarded a $35.8 million contract modification for a large coatings facility set to be completed in 2019. Journalists touring Plant 42 reported, "while Northrop would not specify that they planned to produce the B-21 at that location, officials were all but winking and nodding at the subject." Due to the classified nature of the program topic, very little information has been released; by the summer of 2019 it was reported that construction of the first unit was underway. In early 2021, several media outlets reported that as completion of the first B-21 approached, construction on the second unit had begun.
Maintenance and sustainment of the B-21 will be coordinated by Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, while Edwards Air Force Base, California, will lead testing and evaluation. The B-21 is expected to operate out of bases currently servicing heavy bombers, such as Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, and Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. On 27 March 2019, Ellsworth was selected as the Air Force Base to host the first operational B-21 Raider bomber unit and the first formal training unit.
On 31 January 2020, new B-21 renderings were released by the USAF and Northrop Grumman, showcasing the distinctive flush and blended inlets and the two-wheel main landing gear design, potentially indicating the smaller size and weight of the aircraft in comparison to the B-2.
At a Congressional hearing on 8 June 2021, Darlene Costello, the Air Force's acting Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Acquisition, Technology & Logistics, revealed that the first two B-21s were being manufactured on the production line at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.
Six B-21s are being manufactured as of February 2022. The first B-21 was moved to a calibration facility in March 2022.
In March 2022, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III raised the possibility of a bomber drone to work with the bomber. However this idea has since been dropped due to limited cost savings in making such a large platform unmanned.
In May 2022, the Air Force announced that they expected first flight of the B-21 to take place in 2023.
In September 2022, the Air Force announced that the B-21 would be unveiled in early December 2022 in Palmdale, California.
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era
Published in October 2022.
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