WASHINGTON — The B-21 Raider is now in production, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief said Monday evening.
William LaPlante, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said in a statement to reporters that he approved low-rate production for the Northrop Grumman-made stealth bomber last fall after observing the results of its ground and flight tests. LaPlante also said the B-21 team’s “mature plans for manufacturing” contributed to his decision to move forward on production.
“One of the key attributes of this program has been designing for production from the start — and at scale — to provide a credible deterrent to adversaries,” LaPlante said. “If you don’t produce and field to warfighters at scale, the capability doesn’t really matter.”
The Air Force plans to start fielding a fleet of at least 100 B-21 Raiders, with the first entering service in the mid-2020s. The Raider is planned to eventually replace the aging B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit sometime in the 2030s, and make up part of a planned two-bomber fleet along with 76 upgraded B-52J Stratofortresses.
The Raider, which has been referred to as a sixth-generation bomber, is designed to use its stealth capabilities to carry out penetrating deep strike missions against advanced adversaries, and carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.
The Air Force and Northrop Grumman rolled out the first B-21 in a heavily publicized ceremony at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, in December 2022. Testing on that initial B-21, nicknamed Cerberus, continued at Plant 42 throughout much of 2023 until it carried out its first flight, to Edwards Air Force Base in California, in November.
Flight testing of the B-21 has continued at Edwards since then, including taxiing, ground tests and flying operations. The Air Force Test Center and the 412th Test Wing have led the B-21′s test campaign.
Northrop Grumman has built or is in the process of building at least six test B-21s, including the first one.
The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is in charge of the B-21′s acquisition program, and set an unusual strategy that includes building those test aircraft as close to a production model as possible. This means that the test B-21s are built using the same manufacturing processes and tooling as production bombers. A defense official said in the Pentagon’s statement this approach, which differs from the usual method of flight prototyping, allowed production to start more quickly than usual.
The defense official said the Air Force has worked with Northrop Grumman to create a “digital ecosystem” for the B-21 throughout its lifecycle.
“The engineering and manufacturing data used on the production line will be delivered with the aircraft and combined with modern collaboration and maintenance tools to make the B-21 affordable to buy, fly and sustain at scale,” the official said.
The B-21 program is expected to cost $203 billion over 30 years, and each bomber has an expected average procurement cost of $692 million.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.