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B-21 Raider takes flight for the first time

written by Stephen Kuper | November 13, 2023

Northrop Grumman’s long-awaited B-21 Raider has successfully taken to the skies for the first time, successfully completing the first test flight for the strategic bomber from the company’s Palmdale Plant 42 facility.

This milestone flight marks the first, public successful flight of a sixth-generation combat aircraft, with Northrop Grumman describing the aircraft as the world’s “first sixth-generation aircraft” and a major step change for the US Air Force’s global strike capabilities.

The Australian federal government surprisingly ruled out buying the B-21 Raider in its much-anticipated Defence Strategic Review. Instead, the RAAF will invest in next-generation, long-range missiles that will be fired by Australia’s fleet of 72 F-35s and 24 Super Hornets.

Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider was officially unveiled on 2 December 2022 at the company’s Palmdale, California, facility, marking the unveiling for the world’s first sixth-generation combat aircraft, set to replace the US Air Force’s ageing fleet of B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers as the “backbone” of America’s strategic bomber force.


The first successful flight, which took off from the Northrop Grumman Plant 42 facility at Palmdale, California – managed by the Air Force Test Center and 412th Test Wings B-21 Combined Test Force – on Saturday morning (local time) with a US Air Force F-16 as an escort, revealed some tantalising details about this next-generation wonder jet.

In particular, close-up imagery of the test flight reveals a significantly smaller aircraft than the venerable B-2 Spirit bomber the B-21 will replace when fielded in significant numbers. It also reveals two large bomb bays in the underside of the aircraft and a host of sensor suites distributed throughout the underside.

Kathy Warden – chair, chief executive officer and president, Northrop Grumman – said at the launch of the Raider, “The B-21 Raider defines a new era in technology and strengthens America’s role of delivering peace through deterrence.”

The Raider platform is designed to deliver a new era of capability and flexibility through advanced integration of data, sensors, and weapons and will be capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear payloads. The B-21 is designed to be one of the most effective aircraft in the sky, with the ability to use a broad mix of stand-off and direct attack munitions.

Since the contract award in 2015, Northrop Grumman has assembled a nationwide team to design, test, and build the world’s most advanced strike aircraft. The US-based B-21 team includes more than 8,000 people from Northrop Grumman, industry partners, and the Air Force. This team consists of more than 400 suppliers across 40 US states.

The B-21 Raider bomber fleet will prove pivotal to supporting America’s national strategic deterrence strategy. In addition to its advanced long-range precision strike capabilities that will afford combatant commanders the ability to hold any target anywhere in the world at risk, it has also been designed as the lead component of a larger family of systems that will deliver intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic attack and multi-domain networking capabilities.

At its core, the B-21 is capable of networking across the battlespace to multiple systems and into all domains. The Raider is supported by a digital ecosystem throughout its life cycle, providing through-life maintenance, sustainment, and upgrade cost reductions and easing the process allowed the B-21 to quickly evolve through rapid technology upgrades that provide new capabilities to outpace future threats.

Tom Jones, corporate vice-president and president of Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems, said, “The B-21 exemplifies how Northrop Grumman is leading the industry in digital transformation and digital engineering, ultimately delivering more value to our customers.”

The US Air Force anticipates a minimum order of 100 B-21 Raiders to recapitalise its ageing fleet of B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers, providing the US with a credible and survivable airborne strategic strike capability.

The B-21 Raider is named in honour of the Doolittle Raids of World War II when 80 men, led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle and 16 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, set off on a mission that changed the course of World War II.

The US Air Force awarded the B-21 engineering and manufacturing development contract to Northrop Grumman on 27 October 2015. Northrop Grumman’s partners on the B-21 program include Pratt & Whitney, Janicki Industries, Collins Aerospace, GKN Aerospace, BAE Systems, and Spirit Aerosystems.

The news that Australia will favour missiles over long-range aircraft came despite Defence Minister Richard Marles previously saying that purchasing the B-21 was “being examined” and US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall suggesting his country would be “willing to talk” about a deal.

Think tank ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute) had estimated, though, that acquiring a fleet of 12 B-21s would cost Australia up to $28 billion.

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