The U.S. Air Force expects first flight of the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider in 2022, as the service moves to lighten the training road for crew members of the new stealth bomber, which is to have a unit cost not to exceed $550 million in base year 2010 dollars–about $650 million today.

The Air Force had said that the earliest possible first flight date for the bomber was December 2021.

“We expect a first flight somewhere in ’22, no earlier than ’22, I would say,” Air Force Maj. Gen Mark Weatherington, the commander of Eighth Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center, told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation forum on Aug. 31. “If we get a steeper [production] ramp, I think you’ll see an earlier IOC [initial operational capability] date…Think about this as a decade, 10 to 12 years-type of challenge, as we look to be in that IOC/FOC [full operational capability] range and retiring B-2s and B-1s and bringing on a fully capable B-21.”

The Air Force has not announced IOC or FOC dates for the B-21.

While Weatherington said that COVID-19 restrictions have so far kept him from visiting Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale plant, which is building the first B-21 test jet, he plans to visit and has talked with program officials on the jet’s progress.

“So far we think that the program is on track and coming in under or at the unit cost we thought it would come in at, which is great, and we think it’s going to deliver capabilities because we have a strong set of requirements that underpin it,” he said. “Everything I hear is positive. I’m looking forward to getting out there and seeing it. I think like anything though, especially today, the avionics, the communications, that backbone that’s going to provide information, that’s going to share information, that’s going to connect to other systems, those are absolutely vital capabilities. I think we all know that B-21 is going to bring some unique characteristics in terms of its low-observable capabilities, in terms of its weapons, and all of those things, but it’s those other capabilities, that are very complex and that we’ve developed over the last several years that will be interesting to see how that turns out.”

The Air Force is flying the avionics on a testbed aircraft, rather than the B-21 test jet, in an effort to reduce program risk and resolve software and subsystem bugs, per Randall Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO).

“Another thing I’m absolutely interested in is the training and crew force kind of integration with the jet,” Weatherington said on Aug. 31. “How do we prepare people to fly it? How do they understand and learn, as they’re flying? How do we debrief? How do we get them ready access to information to help them improve and become stronger, become better so I am headed down to [Northrop Grumman in] Melbourne [Fla.] to talk to the team about some of the training systems and debrief capabilities and other aspects of the platform that are really important to the crew force going forward. That’s how we’re going to build and train the best operators in the B-21 we can possibly have.”

The B-21 program has apparently been able to mitigate some of the possible supply chain impacts of COVID-19. Walden said recently that the RCO has used 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 B-21.

Announced by the Air Force in March 2016, Tier 1 suppliers for the B-21 include Spirit AeroSystems; Nashua, N.H.’s BAE Systems; 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. 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.

The RCO used those funds to beef up construction of the large components of the B-21 by moving the former 737 workers to the B-21 production line, which had seen impacts from COVID-19, Walden 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.