Northrop’s B-21 is almost here. What’s next for the stealthy bomber?

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WASHINGTON - The December 2 introduction of the B-21 Raider will provide the world's first glimpse of a bomber that manufacturer Northrop Grumman and the US Air Force see as a generational leap in aircraft technology and development.
The B-21 -- the Air Force's first new bomber in more than three decades -- will be developed enough to qualify as a sixth-generation aircraft, Tom Jones, president of Northrop Grumman's Aeronautics Systems Unit, said in an interview with Defense on Nov. 22 News.
The technology used in testing the B-21 -- and the Air Force's decision to conduct its flight tests on a production-representative aircraft rather than an experimental model -- could represent a way forward for faster, less risky aircraft purchases in the future, Jones added added.
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He stated that the B-21's advances in stealth capabilities, use of open system architectures, and incorporation of joint all-domain command and control technologies to share data across platforms will make it the "first sixth-generation system." JADC2 is the Pentagon's effort to connect sensors to gunners in all aspects of warfare.
The debut of this B-21 - numbered 001 and designated T1, for the first flight test aircraft - at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, marks the beginning of an important phase in the bomber's development. Since the spring, Northrop Grumman has continued testing the first bomber, final assembly, and applying coatings and paints to get it ready for the public.
Jones said the first B-21 will undergo additional testing over the next few months to ensure it is ready for its maiden flight. This includes turning systems on and off, running the motors, performing roll test runs, and other standard integration tests.
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The B-21's maiden flight will be at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where further flight testing will take place. The date of this flight is not yet scheduled; Northrop said a date will be based on the results of the ground tests but expects it to happen sometime in 2023, a few months after the launch.
Jones hopes the B-21 model of using a representative production aircraft -- one essentially identical to the later production aircraft -- for test flights will pave the way for faster acquisitions in the future.
In an October announcement of the B-21's introduction, Air Force acquisitions chief Andrew Hunter noted the Air Force's early decision to make flight test aircraft production representative, saying it "pays dividends when we... look at the first flight".
Typically, Jones said, most new aircraft programs have their first flight performed by an aircraft that is not representative of production. This can mean lengthy testing times are required before a program becomes something representative of production, he added.
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But testing with an aircraft very close to the final production version, built on the same production line, will speed up the process, he said. "I hope that many future acquisitions will go in this direction," said Jones. "It cuts time, and [when] you're listening to [Air Force] Secretary [Frank] Kendall or other service chiefs, it's all about speed and deploying capabilities in the field."
Jones also noted Northrop's use of digital testing to "eliminate risk" and find potential problems with the B-21 in a virtual environment. By conducting virtual tests, he added, the company is able to identify and fix problems before they reach the real world.
For example, he said real-world load calibration tests conducted by Northrop in May correlated closely with digital models previously run. And the company's engineers used flight simulators and digital environments to optimize the Raider's windshield.
There are still six B-21s in various stages of development, including the first flight test aircraft. The second full B-21 is called the G1; It will be a ground test aircraft.
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Northrop declined to say when work on the seventh B-21 will begin.
Friday's unveiling of the B-21 will be the "grand finale of the day," said Northrop Grumman spokeswoman Katherine Thompson. The rollout will also feature an "Advancing Aeronautics Expo" that will include several aircraft including a B-25 Mitchell - the same type of bomber flown by the Doolittle Raiders after which the B-21 is named.

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