WASHINGTON — The Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman a $108 million contract to buy items in advance that will be needed to build the B-21 Raider bomber, but might take a long time to acquire.

The contract to support the acquisition of long lead items needed to build the first lot of production B-21s, announced in a Wednesday release, is the service’s latest step toward fielding the next-generation stealth bomber.

Long lead items are components needed to manufacture a system like the B-21, but that take extra time to obtain from suppliers. If those items are not procured in advance, an entire program can be held up while the manufacturers wait for the critical parts to arrive. The military regularly provides advance procurement money on major programs to avoid that situation.

The Air Force is starting to ramp up preparations to add the B-21 to its fleet. Northrop Grumman now has at least six bombers in various stages of production at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.

The first flight test B-21 is now undergoing ground testing, which includes checking its structural design and integrity before a flight takes place. Other steps in the B-21′s ground test phase will include turning its power on, testing subsystems and applying coatings and paint.

The rollout of the B-21 is expected to take place at some point in 2022, although the date has not yet been announced, and its first flight will follow at a later date.

The Air Force said in the release the B-21 will become the “backbone” of its bomber fleet and the advance procurement contract shows its commitment to fielding it.

“The B-21 Raider program is foundational to the Air Force’s operational imperative for an effective, long-range strike family of systems to guarantee our ability to strike any target, anytime, anywhere, even in the most contested environment,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown said.

Brown also praised the Raider for its “pursuit of game-changing technology.”

“The quality of the aircraft build, coupled with its open systems architecture design and built-in margin for future growth, will provide our warfighters the competitive advantage we’ll need to deter current and future conflicts, and fight and win if called upon to do so,” Brown said.

Under an engineering and manufacturing development contract, Northrop Grumman is now building test aircraft on the same production line and with the same tooling, processes and technicians that will be used for production aircraft, the Air Force said.

“The B-21 test aircraft are the most production-representative aircraft, both structurally and in its mission systems, at this point in a program, that I’ve observed in my career,” Randall Walden, director of the Air Force’s rapid capabilities office, said in the release. “The right decisions are being made on this program to pave the way for a high-fidelity flight test campaign and an effective transition to production.”

The Air Force’s proposed budget for fiscal 2023 would add $1.7 billion in procurement funds for the B-21, to the $108 million approved in 2022. The Air Force wants to spend more than $5.2 billion on the B-21 next year, including continuing its EMD phase.

The Air Force received funding in 2022 for five new construction projects for the bomber’s mission at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, which will be the B-21′s first main operating base. Construction has begun on a hangar for maintaining the bomber’s low-observable stealth coating, which will be Ellsworth’s first such hangar.

The Air Force in 2019 selected Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas as the second and third main bases for the B-21. An environmental impact statement, needed to make the final decisions on the bases, is scheduled to begin this year.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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