The Air Force’s next-generation nuclear bomber is winding its way through production, but don’t expect to see it flying until December 2021 at the earliest, the service’s rapid capabilities office (RCO) director said Oct. 24.

The service has its first B-21 Raider test jet moving through production at prime contractor Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] facilities in Palmdale, California, said Randall Walden at an Air Force Association breakfast event on Capitol Hill. “There’s real work on the production line, literally today,” he said.

The program is about one year out since completing its critical design review, “which should tell you that we’re ready to actually start building big parts, and we are doing that,” Walden said.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson previously confirmed at a July AFA event that first flight for the B-21 Raider was expected around December 2021 (Defense Daily, July 24). Walden confirmed Thursday that the RCO was also tracking that timeline, however he “would not bet on that date.”

“There are a lot of things that lead up to a first flight that have to be accomplished,” he noted. “But in general terms, that [date] is what we’re shooting for.”

He told reporters after the breakfast event that “like anything, building a complex system could add those schedule pressures.”

“We’ve got to bring parts together, got to assemble it and get it stuffed with the right avionics, get the landing gear on, all the things that go along with building an airplane,” Walden said. “Once that’s in play, then we can roll it out and do low speed, high speed, taxi to get us to first flight.

“All of that has to take place, and by the way, when we finally get it outside, weather may prevent us from launching that date,” he continued.

A public rollout is expected once the Raider is finally ready for first flight, he added. “We can’t just say we’re going to sneak it out and get a first flight in.”

The Air Force recently reactivated the 420th Flight Test Squadron to support testing of the Raider at Edwards Air Force Base, California, he noted. The 420th – which previously supported testing of the Air Force’s B-2 Spirit bomber – is organized under the 412th Test Wing at Edwards, a short drive from Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Palmdale.

The program still includes a minimum of 100 aircraft, and the production line “should be able to handle that easily,” Walden said. “Based on the timing, if you wanted to ramp up or build more, you could do that, depending on what the nation needs.” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said at the annual AFA Air, Space and Cyber Conference in September that the service is weighing retiring some of its oldest B-1B Lancers more quickly to release funding to procure additional B-21s (Defense Daily, Sept. 18)

The Air Force announced earlier this year that Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, is the preferred first base to receive the B-21 as well as a formal training unit (Defense Daily, March 27). Ellsworth currently hosts B-1B Lancer bombers under the 28th Bomb Wing. A final basing decision is expected around 2021.