The Air Force’s next generation of stealth bomber is closer to becoming reality, with several copies of the B-21 Raider already in production, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed Monday.
“As I speak, there are now [five] test aircraft being manufactured on the B-21 production line at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California,” Kendall told attendees of the Air Space Cyber Conference.
The news comes two months after the Air Force released an artistic rendering of the future stealth bomber, designed to carry out long-range conventional and nuclear missions and slated to hit full operations in the mid-2020s.
“This investment in meaningful military capabilities that project power and hold targets at risk anywhere in the world addresses my number one priority,” Kendall said. “I will be looking for other opportunities to rapidly and efficiently move the applications of advanced technology, from any source, down the field as quickly as possible to get meaningful military capabilities into the hands of our operators.”
Production of the stealth aircraft comes as China continues to ramp up its own modernization programs, Kendall said.
“If anything, China has accelerated its pace of modernization, and taken it in some disturbing directions,” he said.
The B-21 Raider, along with modified B-52s, will form a two-bomber fleet that will incrementally replace the aging fleet of B-1 Lancer and the B-2 Spirit bombers.
In 2015, Northrup Grumman was awarded the B-21 Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract for the B-21. The Air Force has said it intends to purchase at least 100 aircraft it says will form the backbone of the service’s bomber force, with an average unit procurement cost of $639 million each.
Earlier this year, the Air Force announced the B-21 Raider will be headed to Edwards Air Force Base, California, where the 420th Flight Test Squadron will plan, test, analyze, and report all ground and flight testing.
The first operational B-21 Raider unit will be located at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota—the training grounds of the B-17 Flying Fortresses in 1942. B-21s are also heading to Whiteman AFB in Missouri and Dyess AFB, Texas.
“Now home to three of the four original squadrons that participated in the historic Doolittle Raid, the rich heritage continues today with Ellsworth’s selection as the first main operating base for the B-21 ‘Raider’ bomber,” Maj. Gen. Mark Weatherington, 8th Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center commander, said in June.
“Nuclear modernization is a top priority for the Department of Defense and the Air Force, and B-21 is key to that plan,” Randall Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director, said this summer. “The built-in feature of open systems architecture on the B-21 makes the bomber effective as the threat environment evolves. This aircraft design approach sets the nation on the right path to ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability.”
The Air Force Association’s annual Air Space Cyber Conference is being held through Sept. 22 in National Harbor, Maryland.