The Air Force awarded a $108 million deal Wednesday to a defense contractor to start acquiring parts for the B-21 Raider program -- the upcoming fleet of long-range strike bombers that will soon consume a major portion of the service's budget.
The B-21 Raider project is projected to cost the Air Force $5 billion next year, including $3.25 billion for research and development. That's the largest aircraft research project the Air Force has in the works, and a significant portion of its roughly $169.5 billion proposed budget for fiscal 2023.
Most details about the program are shielded by a thick layer of classification as the Pentagon works to ensure the bombers and their advanced stealth capabilities can surprise potential foes, with only general details about production and cost publicly revealed as part of the budgeting process.
In total, at least 100 of the B-21 aircraft are scheduled to be produced. They are expected to be operational by the mid-2020s and will be capable of carrying conventional and nuclear munitions.
The first six B-21s are being manufactured now at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks visited the production line April 7, the day after the procurement deal was announced.
With funding secured to purchase advanced equipment and materials, defense contractor Northrop Grumman may accelerate production of the newest class of stealth bombers.
"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," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown in a statement released to coincide with the announcement of the new contract.
Once completed, the aircraft will likely be stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, the Raiders' first main operating base. Both Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, and Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, are also expected to become main operating bases.
The B-21 Raider is named after the Doolittle Raiders, the airmen known for conducting the first air raid against the Japanese during World War II. The aircraft will eventually replace older generations of long-range bombers including the B-1B Lancer, the B-2 Spirit and potentially the B-52 Stratofortress.
-- Jonathan Lehrfeld is a fellow at Military.com. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media.