NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Gen. Robin Rand, the head of U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command, is “cautiously optimistic” about the progress of the B-21 bomber program.

Rand, speaking to reporters at the annual Air Force Association conference on Wednesday, said that he was “very, very pleased with how we’ve started. It’s cautious optimism, but I’m optimistic.”

“That enthusiasm has to be tempered by, ‘We have a lot of work to do.’ We cannot take our foot off the pedal, if you would. There is a lot of work to do in the months and years to come,” he continued. “It’s really, really important to me that we deliver on time, on cost.”

Since the contract for the B-21 was awarded to Northrop Grumman in late 2015, service officials have consistently said the secretive program remains on track for the first aircraft to go into service in the mid-2020s. The program passed a preliminary design review in March. 

Rand also said that the service and Northrop are working together to form an informal group to study the B-2 program for lessons that can be applied to the next-generation bomber.

“We’re already putting together a team to make sure that we do a deep dive” into the history of the B-2, which was also produced by Northrop. “What were the strengths? What were the weaknesses? Where could we have gotten better on our side? How could it have gotten better on their side?”

Perhaps the biggest lesson Rand has already taken from the B-2, whose production was famously curtailed at just 21 due to cost overruns and delays, is ensuring the program remains on track will be vital to any hopes of hitting a production minimum of 100 planes.

“I think we have an opportunity, if we do this right … to make this what I think could be a benchmark acquisition program for our nation,” Rand said. “I’m not just wishful thinking when I say that. In large measure, now that we have a lot of good lessons that we can learn collectively from the B-2 program, we’re going to learn them.”

Northrop has consistently avoided commenting on the B-21 program, citing its classified nature. However, the company has not been subtle about advertising the crown jewel of its aircraft production line.