AFA NEWS: When Will B-21 Make First Flight? Depends on the Data
Air Force photo
NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — The B-21 Raider, the Air Force’s closely-guarded stealth bomber program, promises advanced networking capabilities, open systems architecture and long-range strike capabilities that industry experts say “needs to be ready day one.” Just when day one will come remains to be seen.
The service announced Sept. 12 that the program has commenced engine runs as part of its test program at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, California, facility. Air Force officials and Northrop Grumman representatives remain united in simply saying the first flight will be “data driven.”
“We’re still on track for first flight this year,” William Bailey, director of the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said during a panel discussion at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference Sept 13. He said the aircraft is “moving fast” and has made “incredible progress,” but first flight isn’t the end goal.
“The challenge here for us is to stay focused,” he said. “We need to be ready on day one to operate this aircraft.” Readiness is not just the aircraft, he said. It includes the tech orders and logistics that support the training, “that whole spectrum.”
Tom Jones, president of Northrop Grumman Aeronautic Systems, said the company gets the “first flight” question a lot, and it has a “pretty standard response”: it’s a data-driven event.
“The end goal is getting planes on the ramp for our end user, which means we need to have the most efficient transition into a highly effective flight campaign that we possibly can,” he said.
That means not cutting corners, “or what I call acquisition theatrics,” he said. “We could have easily set a date and said, ‘We’re gonna fly some configuration of the B-21 by this date … but if we do that, will we have an aircraft that can make the second flight very soon after, and the third flight?”
While the specifics of the bomber’s schedule remained vague, the panel did discuss the aircraft’s design methods.
The program is using digital engineering and augmented reality to improve efficiencies and reduce rework and repair efforts, Jones said.
“When we put a mock up together, that’s coming out of that digital environment,” and looking at “what it takes for that kind of deterrence as we look at how we design the architecture. How do we design that digital environment?”
Jones called the digital design approach “a highly immersive virtual environment where we’re actually able to combine … augmented reality [and] digital models with lower fidelity mock-ups.”
On the software side, Bailey said they’re ready to go.
“The software team has all the code we need to handle the flight right now,” he said. “But between the software and the hardware guys, they're saying please hurry up. We're done. It's an exciting time.” But they’re still thinking about how it all has to work together, he said.
Digital twins and augmented reality tools in the hands of operators can also be used to help maintain the aircraft, which Jones said is “relatively revolutionary.”
Regardless of when the B-21 sees its first flight, the Air Force is going to need more of them, and faster, Mark Gunzinger, retired Air Force colonel and director of future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said.
“We need our bomber force now more than ever,” he said. “The core of our National Defense Strategy is being able to deter China.” To do that, only bombers can provide the necessary mass, precision and range, he said.
The force has 141 “total tails … and that’s simply not enough.” He said independent analysis has pinned 300 as the ideal number, but the Air Force does not have the proper resources to achieve it.
The bomber force needs to grow “as quickly as possible,” he said. “And that means the acquisition rate of the B-21 should be maximized.” He cited an unclassified report to Congress that has the B-21 topping out at 10 per year sometime in the 2030s.
“We need them as quickly as possible on a ramp to deter China … this decade. Not sometime in the theoretical 2030/2040 future.” He said tradeoffs are necessary, and “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
In spite of lingering questions, the panel agreed the B-21 is a necessary tool in rethinking deterrence, and represents what Brig. Gen. Ty Neuman, director of strategic plans, programs and requirements at Headquarters Global Strike Command, called “a leap in … thinking.”
“We're gonna think differently about the deployment of this airplane. It's about providing complicated scenarios that the adversary has to plan for and plan against,” Neuman said.
The B-21 will provide the capability to “reach targets around the world,” he said. “And in just a matter of hours, we can project not only the capability, but [it] allows us to take weapons and develop weapons that our adversary is going to have to think differently about.”