Northrop Grumman officials announced on July 27 that the under-development B-21 Raider accomplished its first “power on” test recently, inching closer to a first flight that is still scheduled to take place before the end of this year.
A report in Air and Space Forces quoted Northrop and US Air Force (USAF) officials giving careful and conservative estimates of the project’s development timeline, the scheduled roadmap, and the defense major’s financial health – involving profit margins, development funding by the USAF, and inflation-adjusted expenditure. It was first unveiled on December 3, 2022.
Considered a vital weapon envisaged to breakthrough enemy radars and air defenses through a combination of its stealth and electronic jamming, ensuring the program doesn’t follow the same fate of other high-ticket projects like the F-35 in terms of cost overruns, and delays have been a major priority.
The urgency of the weapon is high as assessments of a possible military clash with China or Russia have been consistently higher.
Careful scheduling, costing, and new production and engineering processes, like creating a digital clone to simplify technical modifications, have been introduced to keep the project on track. Reports show defense executives and USAF officials have refrained from giving ambitious timelines on the bomber’s flight testing, production, and operationalization deadlines.
Inching Closer To First Flight
The ASF report quoted Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden from a second-quarter earnings call estimating that the company expects a Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) contract before the end of 2023.
“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.”
A power-on is one of the first tests on a prototype where the aircraft’s batteries and engines are just turned on to check if they are performing the fundamental electrical and electronic functions.
This is followed by taxi trials, where the plane just travels on land over the runway and taxiways to test the various systems with the aircraft in motion. Technical changes are made to the different equipment based on the results, leading to flight tests.
In this final stage, before a prototype is selected, the testing crew and pilots generate tons of data on the performance of the various systems that inform the next development phase. In some cases, there are even more technical tweaks and reengineering. The changes are finalized when the plane goes into either series or LRIP on the factory assembly line.
In the B-21’s case, its advanced electronics, sensor fusion, stealth, and possibly complex software code will be checked in the flight tests, and whether the plane performs to the stipulated parameters set by the user – in this case, the USAF.
The stage between flight testing and production can sometimes lead to delays as either it is the reengineering that takes time or the company discovers problems in the production phase regarding supply chains and sourcing various components, as had happened in the case of the F-35.
No Profit Initially
Chief financial officer David Keffer added, “We remain on track for this year’s first flight. Again, that timing continues to depend on events and data over time.
We anticipate that the first LRIP contract will be awarded following the first flight.” While this indicates that the deal between Northrop and USAF conditions the LRIP contract only after the first flight, it is unclear if this is the case.
Warden meanwhile credited the “digital thread” method with the 15 percent improvement in efficiency that the company experienced. Northrop, however, doesn’t expect any profits during the LRIP phase “due to the drag of inflation on the fixed-price contract.” However, Warden clarified that the company would receive $60 million from the Air Force to mitigate inflation on the project.
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 the inflationary impact,” Warden added. The plane would cost $203 billion to develop, operate and purchase 100 aircraft over 30 years.
But the Department of Defense (DoD) did cater to the “inflationary impact” by allocating $60 million for the B-21 LRIP, and the company has received a notification to that effect. But this allocation applies only to the current fiscal year of 2023, Warden clarified, implying that the support may not be available next year if the flight testing and LRIP phase get delayed and pushed to 2024 or beyond.
Paranoia Over Delays
In early 2021, the service projected mid-2022 for the B-21’s first flight. However, by May 2022, that timeline was pushed to 2023. It was in March 2023 when Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall reported a “few months” delay to the program but maintained it was still set to occur before 2024.
Kendall quickly rushed to clarify that this delay pertained not to the primary “baseline schedule” but to the USAF’s “internal schedule.” This is a secondary “little bit more aggressive” timetable to “pressure people to move fast” and keep the program on track.
Such a practice is not outside the realm of possibility, given how the US government has become jittery over multi-billion dollar cost overruns and technical issues, as was experienced with the F-35.
The F-35 by 2021 had recorded cost overruns of $412 billion from $398 billion, according to a Department of Defense (DoD) report in September of that year. More than 875 F-35s have been delivered globally, and twelve air forces have declared the aircraft operational.
By December 2022, the cost of a project to upgrade the F-35’s cockpit computer had risen by $680 million, nearly doubling the size of the original contract worth $712 million in 2018. Thus, the delivery of the first jet with the upgraded hardware and software would be pushed back several months from the planned completion date of July 2023.