Successful B-21 Test Moves Bomber Closer to First Flight, Still on Track for 2023

The B-21 Raider accomplished its first “power on” test in recent months, moving it another step closer to a first flight that is still scheduled to take place before the end of 2023, Northrop Grumman officials announced July 27.

After that, the company expects to receive a low-rate initial production (LRIP) contract, also before the end of the year.

In Northrop’s second-quarter earnings call, CEO Kathy Warden said the company doesn’t expect any profits on highly classified B-21 during the LRIP phase, due to the drag of inflation on the fixed-price contract. However, she did report the company will receive $60 million from the Air Force to mitigate inflation on the project.

“We successfully powered-on the first flight-test aircraft in the quarter,” Warden said, calling the development “another important milestone in our campaign to achieve first flight in transition to production.”

Chief financial officer David Keffer added that “we remain on track for first flight this year. Again, that timing continues to depend on events and data over time. We anticipate that first LRIP contract will be awarded following first flight.”

It was not clear from his remarks if the contract is conditional on first flight.

Keffer said the company will continue to look for efficiencies in the program and the timing of the LRIP contract “will be informed by continued progress in driving efficiencies on the program as well as our understanding of that first LRIP contract lot and beyond.” Warden added that some aspects of production have seen a 15 percent efficiency improvement due to the application of “digital thread” methods.

Asked whether the LRIP phase of the B-21 will allow Northrop to “break even,” Warden said “we are not planning to have margin from the LRIP contracts.”

“We still have the risk factor associated with B-21, as we look at inflationary impact,” Warden added. “In the quarter we did receive notification that the [Defense Department] has allocated $60 million for B-21 LRIP procurements due to inflationary impact, and we expect that to be awarded later this year. But keep in mind this only applies to the one fiscal year;  it’s associated with FY 2023. And we continue to work closely with the government on an effort to address the impacts of macro-economic disruption.”

Northrop’s contract for the B-21 was awarded in 2015, and it calls for engineering and manufacturing development to be a cost-plus arrangement, but Northrop agreed to a fixed price arrangement for the first lot of aircraft. Warden said there’s very little financial backlog on the B-2 at the moment because EMD is winding down and the LRIP contract has not yet been awarded.

Northrop and the Air Force rolled out the first B-21 in December 2022. Company officials said the time had come to reveal the top-secret airplane because it would soon be outside the factory for engine runs and taxi tests. However, there have been no reports of the bomber appearing beyond the walls of Northrop’s Palmdale, Calif., facilities in the seven months since.

The B-2 bomber rolled out of the same factory in 1988 and did not fly until nine months later. Its first flight was from Palmdale to nearby Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., which is the planned destination for the B-21’s first flight as well.

Air Force officials have said the B-21’s initial flight likely will not be announced in advance, as the jet will fly when it’s ready, but those officials also said an increasing tempo of outdoor testing will indicate that the first flight is close at hand.

In early 2021, the service projected the B-21’s first flight would take place in mid-2022. In May 2022, that timeline was pushed back to 2023, and in March 2023, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the schedule for first flight had slipped “a few months” but was still set to occur before 2024.

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