Taxi tests of the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber are underway near Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., as the aircraft prepares for first flight.
The Air Force issued a short statement this week that "the B-21 is conducting ground taxi activities."
"Rigorous testing is a critical step in the B-21 flight test program," the service said. "Extensive testing evaluates systems, components, and functionalities. This testing allows us to mitigate risks, optimize design, and enhance operational effectiveness."
This week, social media posts included images purporting to be of the aft end of the B-21 during the taxi tests, but the Air Force, when asked, did not confirm or deny the authenticity of the photos.
Financial analysts did not ask Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden about the taxi tests during a company third quarter earnings call on Oct. 26, but Warden said that the B-21 is still on track for first flight this year to be followed by an Air Force low-rate initial production contract for the bomber.
Six B-21s have been in final assembly at Northrop Grumman’s Plant 42. The company said last month that it had begun B-21 engine runs in Palmdale as part of the ground test program (Defense Daily, Sept. 13).
Thomas Jones, the president of Northrop Grumman Aeronautic Systems, said last month that the company has often received questions on B-21 progress from company shareholders and that the company’s goal is making the transition to a “highly effective test program” to deliver the B-21 expeditiously, “not cutting corners for acquisition theatrics.”
The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies has argued that the Air Force needs to more than double its bomber fleet of 141 to 300, including 225 B-21s, to counter China, achieve nuclear deterrence, and prepare for two simultaneous conflicts.
Retired Air Force Col. Mark Gunzinger, a former B-52 commander and the director of future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute, has said that DoD estimates that B-21 production will peak at 10 per year in the mid-2030s–half the rate Gunzinger said is needed and half that of the original plans for the Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirit.
In 2015, Northrop Grumman was awarded the Long Range Strike Bomber contract to develop the B-21, beating out a Lockheed Martin [LMT]-Boeing [BA] team. The Air Force has said that it plans to buy at least 100 B-21s.
The B-21, which DoD and Northrop Grumman rolled out last December, is to incorporate advances in low-observable maintenance to ensure the next generation bomber is ready to fly consistently when it reaches the field, the Air Force has said.
A version of this story initially appeared in affiliate publication Defense Daily.