The Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider is to incorporate advances in low-observable (LO) maintenance to ensure the next generation bomber is ready to fly consistently when it reaches the field in the coming years, a top U.S. Air Force official said this week.

“I’m very confident that industry is learning the lessons over time,” Air Force Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the commander of Pacific Air Forces, told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies forum on March 20 in response to a question on steps the Air Force plans to take or is taking to help the B-21 have “ready to go” availability. “If you think back to the F-117, then the F-22, then the F-35, and the B-2, now the B-21, each generation of those aircraft become easier and easier to maintain. Particularly the low-observable aspect of the aircraft becomes easier and easier to do.”

“I know that the F-35 as well as the B-21 were designed to be easier on the maintainer to retain that low observability,” he said. “As we think about how we intend to implement the B-21 here in [the Indo-Pacific] theater, we will not base that aircraft real close in but rather in a place where sustainability will not be as difficult…and it’ll be in a place where logistics would not necessarily be under attack so that’ll allow us to keep the aircraft in the air.”

In April 2004, Northrop Grumman announced that it had applied a company-developed Alternate High Frequency Material (AHFM) stealth coating to an operational B-2 in the company’s Antelope Valley Manufacturing Center in Palmdale, Calif., to improve the bomber’s availability. AHFM became a new coating on the B-2s and was to facilitate removal and replacement of access panels and fasteners without the need for subsequent LO restoration work.

While the Air Force has kept the B-2s at Whiteman AFB, Mo., in climate-controlled hangars and performs maintenance after each sortie, the B-21 is to require less protection from the elements and significantly less maintenance.

“The aircraft was designed to be a daily flier,” Wilsbach said of the B-21. “What we mean by that is it’s maintenance friendly. You can quickly repair it when it has a break and get it back up in the air.”

Northrop Grumman said on March 21 that it “has designed in maintainability and cost from the outset of the B-21’s development program, in line with our customer’srobust sustainability and maintainability requirements.”

“Northrop Grumman has continually invested research and development dollars overthe past three decades to improve performance and durability of LO materials, and we have developed a new, innovative approach to applying these materials specifically for the B-21 program,” the company said. “Improved LO performance that is significantly easier to maintain is a key element of how Northrop Grumman is innovating to optimize systems for the highly contested environment, and a key discriminator for sixth gen aircraft moving forward.”

Northrop Grumman said that not only does the company have a B-21 design to improve survivability over previous stealth aircraft, “we also now have a coating system that is as revolutionary in its maintainability as the original B-2 systems were in their stealth.”

Last December, Northrop Grumman and DoD rolled out the B-21, which the Air Force has said will fly for the first time this year (Defense Daily, Dec. 3, 2022). The B-21 appears smaller than the B-2 and has a less prominent cockpit and jet inlets.

Six B-21s have been in final assembly at Northrop Grumman’s Plant 42 in Palmdale.

In 2015, Northrop Grumman was awarded the Long Range Strike Bomber contract to develop the B-21, beating out a Lockheed Martin [LMT]-Boeing [BA] team. The Air Force has said that it plans to buy at least 100 B-21s.

A new Mitchell Institute report argues that the Air Force needs to more than double its bomber fleet of 141 to 300, including 225 B-21s, to counter China, achieve nuclear deterrence, and prepare for two simultaneous conflicts.

“A balanced [bomber] rebuilding approach would rapidly procure B-21s, sustain 20 B-2s until the mid-2030s to hedge against uncertainty, and ensure all bombers are maintained at the highest practical mission-capable rates,” the study said. “The future bomber force must be sized to deter and decisively respond to Chinese aggression, a second threat in another theater, and deter nuclear attacks—simultaneously. Three hundred bombers, including at least 225 penetrating B-21s, is a baseline requirement for the U.S. Air Force, not an overreach.”

The report said that DoD should target a full-rate production of 20 or more B-21s per year, as achieved for the B-52, B-58, and B-1B.

“The quickest path to acquiring a larger B-21 force at a faster pace would be to stand up a second, government-sponsored production line,” per the study. “At an annual production rate of eight to nine B-21s on a single line, it would take over 10 years to reach the Air Force’s ‘at least 100’ inventory threshold. Production above this would require another year for every 10 additional aircraft—and just less than 15 years for 145 B-21s. A second production line could reduce this timeline and improve B-21 surge production capacity. Co-locating the line with the B-21’s Programmed Depot Maintenance (PDM) facility would also create synergies between its production and sustainment operations.”

PDM is to be at Tinker AFB, Okla., while the first B-21 base is to be Ellsworth AFB, S.D.