The secretive B-21 Raider stealth bomber has completed a second flight, as developer Northrop Grumman continues testing of the next-generation flying-wing type.

The US Air Force (USAF), for whom the B-21 is being developed, confirms that the low-observable jet completed a flight on 17 January.

“Flight testing is a critical step in the test campaign managed by the Air Force Test and Test Wing’s B-21 Combined Test Force to provide survivable, long-range, penetrating strike capabilities to deter aggression and strategic attacks against the United States, allies and partners,” the service said on 18 January.

However, the service did not confirm the location of the sortie or whether the aircraft has flown more than twice. Citing operational security, the USAF says it is not providing details related to the Raider test programme, including the number of flights already completed.

B-21 side

The first B-21 flight was completed in November 2023, from the Plant 42 development site in Palmdale, California

The experimental aircraft’s first sortie took place in November 2023 from Palmdale, California, where Northrop is developing the B-21 at a site known as Plant 42.

The USAF did not disclose the first flight of the Raider prototype ahead of time. Despite the secrecy, several photographers outside the facility were able to capture the B-21 lifting off from the California desert.

Northrop on 18 January confirmed the B-21 flight testing programme is based at nearby Edwards AFB.

”B-21 Raider flight testing is underway at Edwards Air Force Base,” the company says. ”With multiple sorties completed, the combined test force continues to execute our robust flight test campaign on the path to delivering operational capability.”

The USAF’s Test Wing is located at Edwards AFB, which sits less than 20km (12 miles) from Plant 42. The unit oversees flight testing and evaluation for new USAF aircraft, including the Boeing T-7 jet trainer, which arrived at Edwards last November.

The B-21 is intended to replace the Boeing B-1B supersonic heavy bomber and the Northrop B-2 Spirit – the USAF’s only stealth bomber capable of deploying nuclear weapons.

The stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35 strike fighter is also nuclear-capable.

The air force plans to acquire at least 100 B-21s – with a target unit price of $500 million in 2010 values. That equates to $707 million in 2023 values, according to the US government’s Bureau of Statistics.

That represents a significant price reduction compared to the B-2, from which the Raider evolved.

The first iteration of a flying-wing stealth bomber cost some $2.2 billion per airframe – and requires a costly and labour-intensive regimen of regular maintenance to retain its stealthy surface and low-observable profile.

B-21 overhead air intakes

Source: Northrop Grumman

The US Air Force plans to acquire at least 100 B-21 Raider bombers – a fivefold increase from the 20 B-2 Spirit predecessors the service purchased

By contrast, Northrop says the B-21 has been designed for ease of maintenance, with the goal of making the Raider a “daily flyer”.

The lower cost will also allow the USAF to acquire significantly more B-21s compared to the type’s predecessor. Due to the high per-unit price, the service originally acquired just 20 B-2s – of which 18 are still operational.

43 B-1B Lancers and 72 Boeing B-52 heavy bombers are also operational – representing a total bomber fleet of 133 aircraft. That figure does not reflect the B-1B that crashed at Ellsworth AFB on 4 January.

The B-52 will continue to operate alongside the B-21, according to current USAF plans.

Former USAF chief of staff General Charles Brown – who has since been appointed as the USA’s top military officer – said the Raider will be the “backbone of our bomber fleet” when the B-21 was first unveiled in late 2022.

Northrop did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the 17 January B-21 flight.

The company has previously stated it has six Raider airframes in various stages of production and testing.

Delivery of the first B-21 aircraft is expected sometime in the mid-2020s, according to the USAF. The first operational bombers will be stationed at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota.