The U.S. Air Force's first pre-production B-21 Raider stealth bomber is now undergoing taxi testing, moving around the sprawling Plant 42 in Palmdale under its own power. This is the latest developmental milestone for the aircraft as it continues to move closer to its first flight, which could come before the end of the year.
"I can confirm the B-21 is conducting ground taxi activities. Rigorous testing is a critical step in the B-21 flight test program," an Air Force spokesperson confirmed to The War Zone today. "Extensive testing evaluates systems, components, and functionalities. This testing allows us to mitigate risks, optimize design, and enhance operational effectiveness."
This follows the B-21's manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, announcing the first engine test runs on the ground in September. That, in turn, had followed the Raider's systems being powered on for the first time earlier this year.
All of this testing has been occurring at Northrop Grumman's facility within the Air Force's Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. There are five other B-21s in various stages of production there, as well. The six pre-production aircraft are expected to form the core of a test force at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The next major milestone for the B-21 looks to be the type's first flight, the schedule for which has slipped multiple times over the years due to various issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The Air Force's goal now is for the Raider to take to the skies before the end of this year.
"We're still hopeful on having first flight this year," Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said in September, before immediately caveating that statement. "If I were to say it will, I would be making a very specific prediction. And I never do that about an acquisition program for something that hasn't happened yet. Okay?"
The plan is then for the first operational B-21s to start entering service in the mid-2020s. The Raider is set to be a key component of America's nuclear deterrent triad for the foreseeable future. It will also be capable of conducting conventional strikes and will offer a host of other roles.
The B-21 is also only one part of a larger and still heavily classified Long Range Strike (LRS) family of systems, about which you can read more about here. We do know for sure that the LRS FoS includes the stealthy Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) nuclear-armed cruise missile, which is now being very actively flight tested.
When the B-21 will make its next big step forward with its first flight remains to be seen, but we do know that it is at least on the move on the ground now.
Howard Altman and Tyler Rogoway contributed to this story.
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