This month, Northrop Grumman [NOC] began loads calibration testing of the first B-21 Raider stealth bomber in Palmdale, Calif., the company said on May 25.

Another five bombers are in production, Northrop Grumman has said.

Artist rendering of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber (Courtesy: Northrop Grumman)

The U.S. Air Force fiscal 2023 budget request contains the first procurement funding for the B-21–nearly $1.8 billion for the low-rate initial production (LRIP) phase.

The loads calibration of the first B-21 consists of a number of instrumentation and aircraft structural tests that stress the airframe from zero to 100 percent under various flight and maneuver conditions.

“During the ground test phase, in addition to loads calibration, the team will power up the aircraft, test its subsystems, and apply coatings and paint,” Northrop Grumman said on May 25. “The next steps will include carrying out engine runs as well as low-speed and high-speed taxi tests, and then on to first flight.”

The roll-out of the B-21 is to happen later this year followed by first flight next year, the company said on May 25.

Sales from the B-21 are expected to grow as the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase of the program continues and LRIP begins in parallel, Kathy Warden, chairwoman, president and CEO of Northrop Grumman, said on an earnings call with analysts last month (Defense Daily, Apr. 28).

Dave Keffer, Northrop Grumman’s chief financial officer, said in 2022 the EMD phase is in “a critical integration and test portion,” adding that “we continue to focus on production efficiencies.”

Northrop Grumman’s bid for the B-21 included a specific quantity of LRIP aircraft at a fixed-price, Warden said, noting that while she can’t disclose the number of aircraft, “it’s a small portion of the overall program of record.”

“I’ll remind you we’re not really gong to be in the production phase for a couple of years in any significant way,” she said. “And so, we still have a good bit of time and we expect inflation is going to modulate and we’re not seeing, based on the assumptions we’ve made today, a material impact to the program.”

The Air Force envisions the B-21 as directing a number of relatively low-cost combat drones. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that his top technology priority is “autonomous behaviors and artificial intelligence decision support” (Defense Daily, May 2).