The U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) is testing one of six Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bombers to see whether the production fits the RCO’s design and manufacturing predictions.

“We had six bombers on the production line,” Randall Walden, the director of the RCO, said at the Air Force Association (AFA) warfare symposium in Orlando, Fla., on March 4. “We actually took one out and pulled it over to do the loads calibration, which is where you go over and start to bend and flex the airplane and make sure that the design you intended to build matches the predictions. We are using the same production line that we’re going to build a minimum of 100 bombers so we’re also verifying that the production and the manufacturing matches the predictions as well, and we’re gonna learn that very shortly.”

In April 2003, former Air Force Secretary James Roche with support from then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper and Pentagon acquisition chief Pete Aldridge established the RCO to speed the fielding of advanced systems.

The Air Force’s upcoming fiscal 2023 budget may lay out an acquisition strategy for the B-21 Raider, as defense policy makers weigh how to balance a B-21 procurement timeline with sustaining 76 Boeing [BA] B-52s, 45 B-1Bs, and 20 Northrop Grumman B-2s in the years ahead (Defense Daily, Sept. 30, 2021).

Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the service’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told lawmakers last summer that the service plans to neck down to a two-bomber future fleet of 76 upgraded Boeing B-52s and 149 Northrop Grumman B-21 Raiders.

“In deciding whether and how quickly to acquire B-21s, Congress may wish to consider the tradeoff between the cost and effectiveness of new aircraft and extending the service lives of existing B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s,” per a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report last year. “This may be a challenging comparison, particularly as the B-52s are already scheduled to remain in service for 80 years, an unprecedented service life for a combat aircraft. Quite apart from the B-52’s suitability to operate in evolving air defense environments, the challenges of maintaining and operating an 80-year-old aircraft in regular service are unknown. That said, many of the B-52’s systems have already been upgraded and replaced over the years, so the time since manufacture may not represent the actual maturity of the aircraft.”

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said last September that Northrop Grumman had the construction of five B-21 test aircraft underway at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif.–three more than previously disclosed. The latest wrinkle provided by Walden adds yet another bomber.

At the time, Kendall said that “the [B-21] program is making good progress to build real capability” and that “this investment in meaningful military capabilities that project power and hold targets at risk anywhere in the world addresses my number one priority.” Kendall recalled his service as Pentagon acquisition chief during the Obama administration and said that the B-21 had originated from a “family of systems” study done by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

As DoD acquisition chief, Kendall had kicked off the B-21 development phase in October 2015.

Kendall has said that, as a former consultant to Northrop Grumman, he is barred from involvement in acquisition decisions regarding the B-21.

The Air Force requested nearly $3 billion for B-21 research and development and procurement in fiscal 2022 and controlling costs will be a significant issue for lawmakers.

Last month, President Biden signed another continuing resolution to keep the government open through March 11, as lawmakers continue work to finalize fiscal year 2022 spending legislation (Defense Daily, Feb. 18).

DoD has proposed acquiring the B-21 through a cost-plus-incentive fee development contract, followed by firm-fixed-price procurement–an approach that has generated some controversy.

“The late Senator John McCain publicly challenged this contract structure, arguing that a fixed-price development contract would be more beneficial to the government,” per last year’s CRS study. “‘I will not authorize a program that has a cost-plus contract—and I told them that,’ said McCain (R-Ariz.). ‘If you have a cost-plus contract, tell me one time that there hasn’t been additional costs, then I would reconsider. The mindset in the Pentagon that still somehow these are still acceptable is infuriating.’”

“In evaluating the acquisition strategy, Congress may attempt to assess to what degree the declared subsystem risk reduction has actually reduced the technology risk of the entire B-21 program,” CRS said. “Congress may also consider whether it prefers to fix development costs and take a risk on which capabilities can be achieved for that cost or fix the technology requirement and take a risk that DoD proposes to acquire the B-21 through a cost-plus-incentive-fee development contract followed by firm-fixed-price procurement.”