A sixth Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider strategic stealth bomber has entered assembly, while the manufacturer continues to validate its software in anticipation of a rollout and maiden flight before the end of 2022. 

“The B-21, going into the future, is going to be our penetrating, get inside the anti-access, area of denial, dual-capable aircraft,” director of Strategic Plans, Programs, and Requirements at US Air Force Global Strike Command Maj. Gen. Jason R. Armagost said on February 9, 2022, at the 2022 Nuclear Deterrence Summit. 

“There are now six of those in existence. The rollout will probably be some time this year,” Armagost said, according to Air Force Magazine. 

In 2020, it was announced that the aircraft’s first flight was likely to take place in 2022. In mid-2021, it was revealed that five B-21s were being assembled, and the rollout of the first completed aircraft was expected to happen in mid-2022.  

The aircraft entered development in 2014 and is expected to serve as a replacement for both the B-2 Spirit and the B-1 Lancer. While similar in shape to the B-2, the B-21 will be lighter, cheaper, and stealthier. 

Geared towards the penetration of heavily protected airspace in a conflict with a near-peer adversary, the B-21 was said to be able to operate in tandem with a swarm of drones (referred to as ‘loyal wingmen’) as well as a capable reconnaissance and surveillance platform.  

The aircraft will be powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan engines, the same type currently used by the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. It will also use other existing technologies to reduce the cost and production time.  

The United States Air Force (USAF) revealed that it expects to purchase at least 100 B-21s for a cost of $600 million per unit. 

The current six B-21s are a part of the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase of the program. This means that while they can be considered prototypes, the aircraft are also likely to become the core of USAF’s B-21 fleet later in their life.  

According to The War Zone, this mirrors the development of the B-2 back in the 1980s, when six aircraft were also built during the EMD phase, and later entered service. 

Additionally, according to Armagost, all B-21s have a modernization effort built into them. This means that early production aircraft are expected to be modified, making them as capable as the latest models when upgrades become available.