As the Pentagon reviews key weapons programs for possible procurement changes under the Biden administration, Northrop Grumman [NOC] said it is well on its way to meeting milestones ahead of a low-rate initial production (LRIP) decision on the B-21 Raider stealth bomber—two of which are on the company’s production line in Palmdale, Calif.

Steve Sullivan, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s strike division, said in a Feb. 22 statement that the company’s “early and continued investment in infrastructure, design maturation, risk reduction and our workforce has been a significant driver of progress on our first two aircraft on the production line in Palmdale.”

“As a result, we are well-positioned for low-rate initial production following key milestones in 2022 and beyond,” he said.

The U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) said last month that it is looking to mid-2022 as the first flight for the B-21 (Defense Daily, Jan. 21).

Northrop Grumman said on Feb. 22 that a recent systems demonstration “further matured B-21 hardware and software integration” and that such efforts “are instrumental to the Raider’s rapid development” after a critical design review in 2018. The bomber takes its name from Doolittle’s Raiders–a group, captained by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, that launched 16 B-25B Mitchell bombers from the USS Hornet (CV-8) to strike Japan on April 18, 1942.

Northrop Grumman is betting heavily on the B-21’s success and posts web updates on the effort under the “Rise of the Raider” moniker.

“As the program continues to prepare for the Rise of the Raider, Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force are continuing their steadfast collaboration to provide the long-range penetrating strike aircraft the nation needs,” the company said on Feb. 22.

Sullivan said that the company is “committed to delivering the world’s most capable, technologically advanced bomber that will equip our warfighters with every strategic advantage against our adversaries.”

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 Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight has predicted that the B-21 and the Northrop Grumman Ground Based Strategic Deterrrent (GBSD) are candidates for cuts under the Biden administration.

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, 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 avionics 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.

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.