30 years after the B-2 took flight, Northrop is applying lessons to a new stealth bomber
Article By SAMANTHA MASUNAGA STAFF WRITER
Posted on Los Angeles Times
The B-2 stealth bomber, above, took flight 30 years ago. Now Northrop is working on the next-gen B-21. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
PALMDALE, Calif. — At the dawn of the stealth age, the technology involved in making a plane nearly invisible to radar was mysterious and, to some critics, dubious. There were concerns that the special coating on the U.S. Air Force’s new stealth bomber would melt in the rain.
Nonetheless, 30 years ago the first B-2 bomber took to the air from the Plant 42 runway in Palmdale, Calif. Aviation visionary Jack Northrop’s dream of a “flying wing” plane — one with no tail — was realized, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Dawkins Jr. recalled Tuesday at a commemorative event at Northrop Grumman Corp.’s factory here.
Air Force Major General James Dawkins Jr. addresses the crowd as Northrop Grumman hosted a 30th anniversary commemoration of the first flight of the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bombers at its Palmdale facility.(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)
Today, Northrop is ramping up development of a replacement stealth bomber, the B-21. Dawkins spoke near two beige buildings, built in the last year, which are part of a contract likely related to that next generation of aircraft. Signs of expansion at the facility were visible Tuesday; behind the gathered crowd, a construction crew used equipment to move mounds of dirt into a dump truck.
Northrop Grumman officials and defense analysts say the defense giant will take advantage of lessons learned from the B-2 and use them in its work on the B-21 bomber, which will be assembled at the Palmdale site. That plane could fly for the first time in 2021 and is expected to enter service in the 2020s.
The B-21 is expected to utilize some crucial technologies that were already far along in development. A rendering of the plane released in 2016 by the Air Force suggests the B-21 will be somewhat similar in shape to the B-2.
The B-2 plane, Spirit of Missouri on display is the first operational aircraft. The B-21 bomber is now taking shape in these same Palmdale facilities, 30 years after the B-2’s first flight. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)
“The B-2 will be setting the path course for the B-21,” Janis Pamiljans, president of Northrop Grumman’s aerospace systems sector, said during the event. “What we’ve learned on B-2 are finding themselves baselined in the design for B-21 for supportability, sustainability, mission capable rate.”
The B-21 program is being managed by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office to cut red tape, and any design changes — which can slow progress and increase costs — must be approved at higher levels than usual, according to the Air Force.
“And in order for it to be successful, they have to avoid mistakes that were made on the B-2,” said Loren Thompson, military analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Va.
The B-2 bomber was designed to give the U.S. Air Force long-range, penetrating strike capabilities with little or no risk of detection or interception. The Air Force originally intended to buy 132 B-2s. But costs ballooned and the Cold War ended just before production started. Even the Defense Department questioned whether it needed so many planes. In the end, only 21 aircraft were delivered to the Air Force, at a per-plane manufacturing cost of $1 billion in 1998 dollars.
The Pentagon has said it intends to buy 100 B-21 bombers by the mid-2030s for at least $80 billion. Northrop’s bid was for a per-plane cost of $511 million, according to an independent cost estimate, though the exact amount is classified. The B-21 is intended to replace the B-2 and the 1980s-era B-1B. The new bomber could eventually replace the 1950s-era B-52, which the Air Force continues to value for its large airframe that can handle massive weapons loads and repeated electronics upgrades.
“The B-21 cannot cost what the B-2 bomber cost,” Thompson said.
Even though some fears of the planes’ fragility proved overwrought, the B-2 program has been criticized for the extensive cost of maintaining their stealth technology. The special coating absorbs radar waves as they hit the plane, whose shape is also optimized for stealth.
Air Force Col. (ret) Tony Imondi, left, was a former B-2 Instructor Pilot as he reminisces with Bill Flanagan, right. The pair were the original group of flight testers. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)