WASHINGTON — Despite impacts from the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Air Force’s B-21 Raider program remains on track as Northrop Grumman continues production of the first B-21 bomber, the head of the service’s Rapid Capabilities Office said Thursday.

Speaking at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event, RCO Director Randall Walden acknowledged that some B-21 suppliers had been adversely affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. For instance, Spirit AeroSystems — which builds large composite aerostructures for the bomber — has run into challenges not only on its defense side, but also for its commercial division due to the halt in Boeing 737 Max production, Walden said.

Spirit received $80 million in Defense Production Act funds meant to help stimulate struggling businesses, and Walden noted that the company also funneled employees who normally work on the 737 Max line into augmenting B-21 production efforts.

“The folks that are not manufacturing 737s and those components came over to our production line and really kind of beefed up — where people had some COVID issues — they beefed up that portion of our production,” he said. “Right now, the components that we’re building are really for the test fleet, but the good news: All of what we’re doing today is really insightful for what we’re doing for production in the future.”

After completing a critical design review in 2018, B-21 prime contractor Northrop Grumman is currently building the first B-21 test aircraft in Palmdale, California. The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 Raiders.

On Aug. 3, Walden traveled with Defense Secretary Mark Esper to Northrop’s B-21 design and development office in Melbourne, Florida, to receive a program update.

“I think overall his takeaway was he’s happy with the progress we’re making,” Walden said. “The good news is all of the tough critical designs, all of the hard engineering is kind of behind us, and now it’s a matter of actually producing the airplane and actually rolling it out and getting on with the developmental flight test activities.”

Walden said his office has flight tested some B-21 mission systems and avionics on a surrogate aircraft to work though software bugs and design problems before installation on the actual B-21 test aircraft.

“I know we’re not going to be immune from design flaws. We’re going to have to work through those, and we’re doing some of that today. From my perspective, I want to find out what those design deficiencies were as fast as I can, get on with a solution, get that into the program in the development phase, and get on with production.”

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. Walden has since said that would be the earliest possible date for first flight.

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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