The U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) has taken action to reduce the supply chain impact of COVID-19, including using workers at Wichita-based SpiritAerosystems, Inc. [SPR] who had been building shipsets for Boeing [BA] 737 MAX jet liners to build large components for the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider bomber.

Announced by the Air Force in March 2016, Tier 1 suppliers for the B-21 include Spirit AeroSystems; Nashua, N.H.’s BAE Systems [BAESY]; St. Louis’ GKN Aerospace; Janicki Industries in Sedro-Woolley, Washington; and Collins Aerospace [RTX] in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Boeing has directed Spirit to make just 72 shipsets for the 737 MAX this year, an 88 percent reduction from the 606 shipsets delivered to Boeing last year, according to a release on Spirit’s second quarter earnings last week. The components of a shipset are the fuselage, pylon, wing leading edges, thrust reverser, and engine nacelle.

According to the second quarter results, Spirit furloughed production workers and managers supporting the 737 program in Wichita, Kansas and Oklahoma from June 15 to Aug. 15 and announced 1,100 commercial aerospace worker lay-offs that brought the year to date workforce reduction to 8,000 employees.

In June, Spirit said that the Pentagon had allocated $80 million under the Defense Production Act (DPA) Title III to the company to expand domestic production capability for advanced tooling, composite fabrication and metallic fabrication. DPA Title III uses funds from the CARES Act to fund defense suppliers and mitigate company losses due to COVID-19.

“One of the things we ended up doing, under DPA Title III, is trying to help them [Spirit] through that,” Randall Walden, the director of the Air Force RCO, told reporters on Aug. 13 during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ virtual discussion. “The good news for the bomber side is the folks that were not manufacturing 737s and those components came over to our production line and really kind of beefed up, where people had some COVID issues, they beefed up that portion of our production.”

“Right now, the components we’re building are really for the [B-21] test fleet,” he said. “The good news is all of what we’re doing today is really insightful into what we’re doing for production in the future.”

Northrop Grumman is building B-21 test jet number 1 in Palmdale, Calif. 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. Before COVID-19, the service had said that the first flight of the B-21 test plane could happen as early as December next year.

The Air Force’s fiscal 2021 presidential budget request included plans to cut 17 Boeing B-1B Lancer bombers from the fleet and leave 44 in operation, before retiring the whole fleet by 2036. The Air Force also plans to cut back on its Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bombers as the B-21 production aircraft come off the line later this decade. While the Air Force objective has been for a fleet of 175 bombers in the future, Air Force Global Strike Command has pushed for “north of 220” aircraft in the bomber fleet through a number of paths to reach that number over the next five years (Defense Daily, Apr. 9).

A 220 number would mean 145 B-21s and 75 re-engined and upgraded Boeing B-52Hs in a future Air Force bomber force. The Air Force, however, has stated that its objective number of B-21s is 100.

“There’s a lot of conversation of what the nation needs from a bomber perspective,” Walden said on Aug. 13. “My focus is the minimum of 100, and starting the production line on time, and building to the rate that I’m guaranteed we could with that production line. If I de-focus myself into, ‘Let’s go to 145’ and all that then I’ll find I’m caught up into which airplanes need to go to the boneyard versus not. That’s really [Air Force Global Strike Commander] Gen. [Timothy] Ray’s and now [Air Force] Chief [of Staff Gen. Charles Q.] Brown’s area. I don’t focus on what the requirement is. I’m going to focus on how to meet that requirement and if they want more, I believe this production line we’re doing today will help them get more.”

Walden said that B-21 test jet number 1 “is beginning to look like an airplane so the good news is all of the tough, critical designs, all of the hard engineering, is kind of behind us, and now it’s a matter of producing the airplane and rolling it out and getting on with the developmental flight test activities to inform the fixes because I know we’re not going to be immune from design flaws.”

“We’re going to have to work through those, and we’re doing some of that today,” he said. “From my perspective, I want to find out what those design deficiencies were as fast as I can, get on with the solution, get that into the program in the development phase, and then get on with production.”