Northrop Grumman recently powered up the first example of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber the company is designing for the US Air Force (USAF).

Chief executive Kathy Warden confirmed on 27 July that the company achieved the milestone in the second quarter of 2023.

B-21 overhead air intakes

Source: Northrop Grumman

Northrop unveiled the first B-21 in December 2022 at its fabrication facility in Palmdale, California

“We successfully powered on the first flight-test aircraft in the quarter,” Warden said during Northrop’s second-quarter earnings call. She calls the event “another important milestone in our campaign to achieve first flight and transition into production”.

Northrop in 2015 secured the contract to develop the USAF’s next-generation strategic bomber, and began design and manufacturing work in early 2016. The company publicly unveiled the B-21 in December 2022, saying at that time that it planned for the type to make first flight in 2023.

However, both Northrop and the USAF say the first flight’s precise timing will be “event driven”.

Running power through the first B-21 reflects Northrop’s success at shepherding new projects through low-margin engineering phases into more-lucrative production stages, Warden says. “We are making good progress on moving programmes through development and into production.”

Northrop is initially assembling six B-21 airframes, it has said. The first flight aircraft will be a “production-representative” test model designated “T1”.

The USAF plans to buy at least 100 Raider bombers (substantially more than the 20 earlier-generation B-2 Spirit stealth bombers it purchased from Northrop), and aims for the advanced aircraft to reach initial operational capability before 2030. The service intends to station the jets, once operational, at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota.

The USAF plans to replace its 20 B-2s (which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons) and 43 Boeing B-1B conventional bombers with B-21s. Its 72 Cold War-era Boeing B-52H heavy bombers will continue to serve; Boeing is now working on a project to update those jets into a modernised variant called the B-52J.