US Air Force expects delay in first flight of B-21 stealth bomber

The first flight of Northrop Grumman Corp’s B-21 Raider has slipped a few months even as the Air Force seeks congressional approval for increased procurement funding for the bomber, according to US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and budget documents.

Despite the slip, “it’s still within the baseline we originally had for the program, Kendall told a defense conference in Washington on Wednesday.

Major weapons programs have benchmarks meant to impose discipline on cost, schedule and performance to ensure taxpayer dollars are well-spent and would trigger notification to Congress if breached. The delay isn’t dire, Kendall said.

Kendall said he’s confident the first flight will occur by Dec. 31 and declined to elaborate. Under Pentagon ethics regulations, he had to recuse himself from program details based on business dealings with Northrop Grumman before he became Air Force Secretary.

The Air Force and Northrop unveiled the stealthy bomber in December with a splashy ceremony attended by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. In his remarks, Austin said “we will soon fly this aircraft, test it and then move it into production.

The delay may focus congressional attention on the Air Force’s fiscal 2024 request for increased in B-21 procurement funding for a Northrop Grumman production contract.

The Air Force is seeking $2.3 billion in procurement spending for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, from compared with an approved $108 million in fiscal 2022 and $1.6 billion this year.

Funding production of an aircraft as it’s still in development is a practice known as “concurrency. The Pentagon adopted that approach for the $412 billion F-35 fighter, something that Kendall once labeled “acquisition malpractice because of the resulting cost growth and weight issues that forced major program changes.

Asked about similarities with the F-35, Kendall said he was comfortable with some concurrency in the B-21. The bomber’s schedule “was structured to be aggressive but not crazy given “the threats we face from China.

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