• The first flight of the stealth bomber would occur by mid-2022 
  •  The Air Force has committed to buying at least 100 B-21s
  •  B-21 can remain undetected for longer periods than B-2 

The U.S. Air Force is constructing five B-21 Raider bombers at the Northrop Grumman plant in California, the service’s top civilian has confirmed. The Air Force had only acknowledged two B-21 test aircraft in production till now. 

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall made the crucial revelation at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference at Maryland Monday, reported Defense News.

“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,” he said. "You will never hear me make optimistic predictions about programs. All programs have risk and the same is true of the B-21, but at this point at least, the program is making good progress to real fielded capability," Kendall added.

Since its start in 2014, the B-21 program has been shrouded in secrecy. Set to join the service in 2027, the B-21s can deploy conventional and nuclear weapons in a stand-off and direct attack versions. Its advanced design will allow it to handle intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic attack, command center, and other missions. 

The Air Force has committed to buying at least 100 B-21s.

he Department of Defense first announced the plan to build the new Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) in October 2015. It had then decided to award the contract to Northrop Grumman Corporation. Subsequently, the bomber was renamed B-21 “Raider,” in honor of the Doolittle Raiders of World War II.

Though the Air Force initially projected the first flight of the stealth bomber would occur in December 2021, it was later pushed to mid-2022. 

In January, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director Randall Walden told Air Force Magazine that the first Raider hasn’t yet reached final assembly. "But, it is really starting to look like a bomber. The second plane, now moving down the production line, will allow the Air Force to vet the airframe," said Randall.

“The second one is really more about structures, and the overall structural capability,” he said. “We’ll go in and bend it, we’ll test it to its limits, make sure that the design and the manufacturing and the production line make sense," he added.

Though details about its performance are still under wraps, the B-21 Raider is expected to outperform B-2 which features low observable stealth technology designed for penetrating dense anti-aircraft defenses. 

Besides flying at subsonic speeds, reports said B-21s can remain undetected for longer periods by countering low-frequency radar systems developed to detect stealth aircraft. 

The highlight of the B-21 is that it can lose itself in the low-frequency background scatter, and is much cheaper and easier to maintain than the B-2. 

Bomber1 An artist rendering of the B-21. Photo: Official website of Northrop Grumman