The U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) is looking to mid-2022 as the first flight for the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber.

The Air Force had said that the earliest possible first flight date for the bomber was December 2021, but last Aug. 31 Air Force Maj. Gen Mark Weatherington, the commander of Eighth Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center, said that “we expect a first flight somewhere in ’22, no earlier than ’22, I would say.” (Defense Daily, Sept. 1, 2020)

“If we get a steeper [production] ramp, I think you’ll see an earlier IOC [initial operational capability] date,” he said at the time.

The Air Force acquisition office (SAF/AQ) said in an email on Jan. 21 that “there is a second B-21 in production at Northrop’s Palmdale [Calif.] facility.”

“Neither the first B-21 or second have reached final assembly,” per SAF/AQ. “Lessons learned from producing the first airplane are being applied to the second. The RCO expects first aircraft flight to occur mid-2022.”

Randall Walden, the director of the RCO, said in a statement that the second aircraft “is really more about structures, and the overall structural capability.”

“We’ll go in and bend it, we’ll test it to its limits, make sure that the design and the manufacturing and the production line make sense,” he said.

The Air Force has said that Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota is likely to be the first base to receive the B-21 and a training unit. While the service’s objective is to field 100 B-21s, operational demands may drive that goal up to 145 or more.

The B-21 is to have a unit cost not to exceed $550 million in base year 2010 dollars–about $650 million today.

The Air Force is flying the avionics on a business class testbed aircraft, rather than the B-21 test jet, in an effort to reduce program risk and resolve software and subsystem bugs.

While the service has not disclosed the type of the avionics testbed aircraft for the classified B-21 program, aircraft watchers have speculated that the testbed aircraft is a green Boeing [BA] 737 registered to the Air Force at Bolling AFB, where the RCO is located.

The Air Force 737 jet, which has made flights in southern California, formerly belonged to Wells Fargo Bank [WFC] and then to Denmar Technical Services before entering Air Force service last year. Denmar Technical Services bills itself as a Reno-based provider of radar measurement systems and services.

As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the rest of the Biden administration’s national security team examine future defense needs, the Air Force and U.S. Space Force may fare fairly well, as Biden advisers have spoken of the need to compete against China–a competition that the technologically-focused Air Force and its long range assets may be better suited to meet than the U.S. Army.

Yet, the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight last month counseled the B-21 and the Northrop Grumman Ground Based Strategic Deterrrent (GBSD) as candidates for cuts under the Biden administration.