WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman's secretive B-21 bomber appears set to receive its stealth coating at the same spot its B-2 parent was born.
On Jan. 31, the company was awarded a $35.8 million contract modification from the US Air Force to "construct a new 45,900 square foot coatings facility at Air Force Plant 42." While the B-21 was not specifically named in the contract announcement, Plant 42 is located at the Palmdale, California, facility that has been tied to the bomber program for years.
Palmdale is home to the final assembly and checkout facilities that were used by Northrop to produce the B-2 bomber. Stealth coating on the B-2 fleets are repaired at the location as well, but given the lack of new production for the B-2, the B-21 is the most likely design for the new facility.
Notably, the expected completion date for construction of the facility is listed as Dec. 25, 2019. The Air Force has a tentative operational date of 2025. If the facility is up and running at the start of 2020, it could lead to a first run of low-rate initial production planes rolling off the line in early 2021, which would track nicely to that 2025 date.
In January 2015, when Northrop was fighting to win the bomber contract, Defense News visited the facility as part of a Northrop-organized tour. Reporters visiting the then-empty facility were shown videos and photos of the B-2 line, and while Northrop would not specify that they planned to produce the B-21 at that location, officials were all but winking and nodding at the subject.
In response to an inquiry from Defense News, Northrop spokesman Tim Paynter said: "The contract award for the additional facility at our Palmdale Aircraft Integration Center of Excellence is part of the company’s planned growth as we continue to meet our business objectives."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.