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The B-21 Raider, the next-generation strategic bomber of the US Air Force (USAF), made its maiden flight on 10 November 2023.

Although no official acknowledgements of the flight were released by the USAF or the aircraft’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, in the days following the event, video footage of the first B-21 taking to the skies out of Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, was posted on X (formerly Twitter) by various sources showing the B-21 airborne and accompanied by an F-16 chase plane.

The B-21 could be seen flying with its landing gear unretracted, with a test instrumentation boom protruding to the left of its nose, and was reported to have flown for around 90 minutes.

A flying wing design similar to but smaller than the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, the B-21 is billed as the world’s first sixth-generation aircraft. Northrop Grumman received a contract to develop the aircraft in October 2015: an award that was protested by losing bidders Boeing and Lockheed Martin but confirmed in October 2016.

Northrop Grumman revealed the first B-21 to the world at Palmdale on 2 December 2022 and announced that the aircraft had commenced engine runs as part of its ground test programme on 12 September 2023.

The B-21 will initially replace the Boeing B-1B Lancer and B-2A Spirit bomber fleets in USAF service, while the oldest airframes in the USAF’s Global Strike Command, its fleet of B-52H Stratofortresses, are being re-engined to remain in service as missile carriers alongside the future Raider fleet.

The USAF describes the B-21 as a dual-capable penetrating strike stealth bomber capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions” that “will play a critical role in ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability”.

Its development furthers a strategic air capability that is a key area where the US military still has a significant overmatch in relation to its adversaries. While both China and Russia also operate strategic bomber fleets, neither has a low-observable aircraft anything like the B-2 or B-21.

Around 100 B-21s are expected to be procured, with the USAF stating on its website that the type is expected to become operational in the mid-2020s.

The first B-21 on the tarmac at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Palmdale, California, out of which the aircraft made its maiden flight on 10 November 2023. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)