WASHINGTON — The first flight of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber will occur a few months later than the Air Force anticipated, the service’s secretary said Wednesday.
“It’s slipped from the original schedule — that we were using as a schedule to manage by — by a few months,” Frank Kendall said at the McAleese & Associates conference in Washington, before noting he is recused from making decisions on the program due to his previous consulting work with B-21 manufacturer Northrop Grumman. “It’s still within the baseline [schedule] that we originally had for the program.”
In a statement to Defense News, Northrop Grumman said it still expects to conduct the B-21′s first flight in 2023, “informed by events and data.”
“The program remains on track to the government baseline for cost, schedule and performance,” Northrop Grumman said. “The program continues to focus on system maturity, production readiness and sustainment preparedness to best position the B-21 for first flight and an effective flight test campaign, leading to initial operating capability.”
The first B-21 was unveiled to the public Dec. 2. The Air Force and Northrop Grumman never publicly provided a date for this bomber’s first flight, only saying it would follow the rollout, occur this year and be “data and event-driven.”
The first flight of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, the last bomber the Air Force introduced to its fleet, took place in July 1989, about eight months after its November 1988 rollout.
In a press conference with reporters after the McAleese conference, Kendall declined to say what caused the schedule to slide. He said the delay was with the internal schedule the Air Force had set, and did not indicate a more serious problem with the program.
“You manage to a schedule, which you tend to make a little bit aggressive to try to keep pressure on people to move fast,” Kendall told reporters. “There’s a baseline schedule, which is on the books … but there’s been no breach of that. But with the internal schedule, there’s been a slip of a few months.”
Kristyn Jones, the Air Force’s top finance official who is now serving as the department’s interim undersecretary, said in a budget briefing Monday the service has six B-21s in various levels of production at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. That confirmed number is unchanged from about a year ago.
In a roundtable with reporters last week at the Air and Space Forces Association’s conference, Kendall pledged that the B-21 program would not repeat the “excessive concurrency” problems of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Concurrency is what happens when an aircraft moves through development and into procurement at the same time; if problems are discovered in testing, those problems then have to be fixed in already-built or under construction aircraft.
Kendall noted he once called the F-35′s concurrency problems “acquisition malpractice,” and said the B-21 would not repeat those mistakes.
Kendall said at the McAleese event he and William LaPlante, now undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, structured the B-21 program during the Obama administration “to be aggressive, but not crazy.” At the time, Kendall held the job LaPlante does now, and LaPlante was the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.
“Given the threats that we face, we need to take some risk,” Kendall said. “There’s no such thing as a risk-free program. But there’s prudent risk, and there’s crazy risk.”
Because the B-21 is a completely new aircraft design, Kendall said, it’s wise to conduct some flight testing and make sure “the hard things to do” are successful before committing to production.
“But that doesn’t mean you want to do all the flying program before you start production,” Kendall said. “You want to do enough to feel comfortable that the design is stable, and that what you take into production isn’t going to have to have major modifications after you’ve made that commitment.”
In January, Northrop Grumman executives said in an earnings call the company expected the Air Force to award the first production contract for the B-21 later this year.
But at the AFA conference, Kendall and Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter declined to say whether they were planning to award such a contract in 2023, and said the service is focused on the bomber’s first flight.
The first B-21, which is numbered 001, has been undergoing ground tests in recent months in preparation for its first flight to Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the Air Force will conduct further flight tests.
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.