The B-21 Raider, the U.S. Air Force’s next generation of stealth bomber, has successfully completed loads calibration testing and is on track to take its first flight next year, according to Northrop Grumman.
The news emerged as Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota—location of the first operational B-21 Raider unit—broke ground last week on a 95,000-square-foot Low Observable Restoration Facility. The facility is the first of more than 30 projects slated for the base to support the aircraft, the Associated Press reported.
The ground testing milestone in early May focused on instrument calibration and verifying structural integrity of the bomber, and “yielded positive and consistent results,” the company said.
“During testing, the B-21’s airframe endures varying percentages of stress to ensure the aircraft can proceed on its path to flight readiness,” Northrop Grumman said in a statement.
Additional ground testing phases are now set to include powering up the aircraft, subsystem testing, engine runs, and low-speed and high-speed taxi tests.
Testing also validated the company’s digital design process that aims to reduce production risk, the company added.
Northrop Grumman, much like aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, turned to digital development to expedite development of the bomber.
“Innovative application of digital engineering and commercial off-the-shelf digital tools continue to deliver an advanced degree of precision and efficiency in the build process, with production risk reduction progressing every day as B-21 test aircraft move down the actual production line,” Northrop Grumman said.
Defense acquisition is increasingly turning to digital design in an attempt to shave time in aircraft development.
“The digital trinity of digital engineering and management, agile software, and open architecture, is the true successor to stealth. It’s the next big paradigm shift for military tech dominance,” Will Roper, former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in an October 2020 report, Breaking Defense reported last year.
Northrop Grumman said the B-21 is “making strides toward flight readiness” and “remains on-schedule” for the first flight projected for 2023.
Earlier this year, the Air Force indicated that the six B-21 aircraft in production would roll out in 2022, with the first bombers likely in the air quickly thereafter.
The stealth bomber is designed to carry out long-range conventional and nuclear missions and slated to hit full operations in the mid-2020s. 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.
Ellsworth AFB, the training grounds of the B-17 Flying Fortresses in 1942, has been designated the B-21’s main operating base and site of its formal training unit.