UPDATED 1/22/24 at 9:00 PM ET with comment from Northrop Grumman.
WASHINGTON — Following the first flight of the Air Force’s newest stealth bomber, the Pentagon has formally approved the B-21 Raider program to begin production, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official confirmed to Breaking Defense today.
“Production of the B-21 ‘Raider’ stealth bomber is moving forward. This past fall, based on the results of ground and flight tests and the team’s mature plans for manufacturing, I gave the go-ahead to begin producing B-21s at a low rate,” Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition & Sustainment William LaPlante said in a statement.
“One of the key attributes of this program has been designing for production from the start — and at scale — to provide a credible deterrent to adversaries. If you don’t produce and field to warfighters at scale, the capability doesn’t really matter,” he added.
Further detail about the contract award value and delivery dates were not immediately available. News of the bomber beginning production was first reported by Bloomberg.
Set to replace both the B-2 Spirit and B-1 Lancer, the nuclear-capable Raider is designed for long-range missions with stealth features that can help it slip through enemy air defenses. The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 of the bombers and enter them into service in the mid-2020s.
The Pentagon had tied award of the program’s low-rate initial production contract to the aircraft’s first flight, which took place in November and has been followed by at least one other test flight at Edwards Air Force Base. Executives at the plane’s maker, Northrop Grumman, have long warned, however, that early production lots might not be profitable for the company due to inflationary impacts.
“As shared by the U.S. Air Force, the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider has entered low-rate initial production. Our team received the contract award after B-21 entered flight testing within the program baseline schedule. Our production representative test aircraft indicated readiness for production, achieving all flight performance and data requirements,” Northrop Grumman said in a statement.
“As the world’s first six-generation aircraft, B-21 forms the backbone of the future for U.S. air power, delivering a new era of capability and flexibility through advanced integration of data, sensors and weapons, and is rapidly upgradable to outpace evolving threats,” the company added.
The defense contractor is set to report its 2023 year-end earnings on Jan. 25, where investors will also likely be listening for updates about the LGM-35A Sentinel ICBM, the company’s other nuclear modernization program that officials disclosed last week has suffered a “critical” cost breach.
Breaking Defense’s Ashley Roque contributed to this report.