WASHINGTON — An amendment to the House version of the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill would move some funding for the secretive B-21 bomber program from its research and development account to procurement, a sign that production activities could be picking up.

The amendment transfers $20 million into “Long Range Strike Bomber advanced procurement” and would “allow the program to begin some procurement activities ahead of schedule,” according to the legislation.

The language was adopted by the House Armed Services Committee during its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, and was offered by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who chairs the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

The amendment offered scant other details about the current status of the B-21 Raider program or what prompted the transfer of funds. That, in some ways, is unsurprising — the Air Force has remained reticent to give even vague assessments on Northrop Grumman’s progress developing the new stealth bomber, which is expected to begin initial operations in the mid-2020s.

The HASC version of the defense authorization act, which was agreed to Wednesday night, still needs to be passed by the House and go through the conference process with the Senate, where two separate versions of a bill are reconciled into a single piece of legislation. Even if this provision survives that process, it only provides a recommendation of how government funding should be spent to congressional appropriators, who have the real power to allocate money.

But taken together with other public information about the B-21, the move by HASC fuels speculation about the program’s momentum, especially on when the Air Force will begin procuring the bomber and when a test vehicle could be rolled out for its first flight.

In July 2019, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson said the Raider could take to the skies in about “863 days,” which would pinpoint an inaugural flight in December 2021.

Randall Walden, who leads the B-21 program as head of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in October that the December 2021 time frame was the “earliest” tentative date, but that first flight more likely would occur later, according to Breaking Defense.

The B-21 passed its critical design review in 2018, and Northrop has already begun production on the first aircraft. Last August, Defense News and other publications visited the company’s site in Palmdale, California, and observed the construction of new facilities almost certainly linked to the development of the new bomber.

Walden in October declined to give specifics on when the first B-21 would roll off the production line but acknowledged that some “big parts” were in the process of being built. The 420th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, was reactivated earlier that month to conduct all ground and flight testing of the Raider on behalf of the government, including the first flight.

The Air Force intends to order a minimum of 100 B-21s. However, Air Force Global Strike Command head Gen. Timothy Ray has said the service will need at least 220 bombers to meet future threats. That opens the door to a possible expansion of the B-21 program of record, as the Air Force begins retiring the B-2 and B-1B.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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