Northrup Grumman, the original builder of the B-2 Spirit bomber, is building the new B-21 Raider bomber with the lessons of the old jet in mind. The B-2, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, experienced a long and expensive development process that both the manufacturer and the customer, the U.S. Air Force, are hoping to avoid when building the big bomber’s replacement.
An article in the Los Angeles Times describes the status of the B-21 Raider bomber. The bomber, expected to fly in 2021, is smaller than the B-2 bomber it replaces. The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 of the aircraft at a cost of $550 million each. The Raider, named after a force led by General James “Jimmy” Doolittle that bombed Japan in April 1942, will replace the B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers in Air Force service. The bomber will not replace the 1960s-era B-52H Stratofortress any time soon, which the service plans to fly through the 2050s.
At the time of its development the B-2 Spirit was one of the most expensive defense programs ever. The Air Force originally planned to build 132 bombers, but the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, coupled with runaway development and unit costs, caused the Pentagon to trim the number to just 21 B-2s. The entire program cost approximately $83 billion in 2019 dollars, adjusted for inflation—enough to buy 830 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters.
But that's because the B-2 was a difficult aircraft to design. The heavy strategic bomber combined a tailless flying wing design, a first for an operational combat aircraft, with an all-aspect stealth design. In addition, the Air Force mandated a design change partway through the program that changed the bomber’s flight profile from strictly high altitude missions to include low altitude, terrain following missions.
This necessitated an extensive redesign of the aircraft to strengthen the airframe against the stresses of low altitude flight, adding to the cost and delaying the program almost two years.
Northrop Grumman is reportedly using experience gained in developing the B-2 and the F-35, for which it is a subcontractor, to help speed up and mak the B-21’s development process cheaper. According to the Air Force major general quotes by the LA Times, the Air Force is “real happy” Northrop Grumman’s work on the B-21.
Unfortunately that’s about all we know, because the B-21 is a classified program, but it is a good sign. The plane is scheduled to fly for the first time in December 2021.
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