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Coatings Plant Offers Hints On B-21 Production

Posted by Colin Clark on

B-21 artist rendering

B-21 artist rendering

WASHINGTON: A little Pentagon contract announcement offers the latest indication of the course of the secretive B-21 program.

The announcement last Tuesday of a $36 million modification to an existing contract is the key. It’s for a new 45,900 square foot “coatings facility” at Northrop Grumman’s facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, CA.

I’ve confirmed with a source that this plant is part of the B-21 program and that the facility would be key to stealth coatings for the plane. The Air Force plans to buy more than 100 of the long range strike aircraft and to pay Northrop $550 million a copy.

Development of a stand-alone plant for coatings, presumably for stealth, highlights the importance of security to the program. It’s also confirmation that the B-21 will be largely built and integrated at Palmdale, as most observers expected.

Northrop Grumman B-2 facility

Northrop Grumman B-2 facility at Palmdale

Loren Thompson, a defense consultant who’s watched the program closely, said the completion date of Christmas Day 2019 “does seem a little late in the development cycle, but it would give them several years to integrate the bomber and to begin testing it.”

As a reminder, the Government Accountability Office’s report on the unsuccessful B-21 protest filed by the Boeing-Lockheed team noted “some level of Air Force expectation that disruption of schedule may occur.”

The bomber’s Initial Operating Capability (IOC) is supposed to come around 2025, which would allow five years from the opening of the coatings facility. Thompson notes that “initial coatings could be done elsewhere” to ensure the program stays on schedule but we just don’t know enough about the program’s details to be sure how relevant the new building will be to manufacture of the first few aircraft. IOC will be declared once the first B-21 is up and flying. The first 21 aircraft will comprise five batches of Low Rate Initial Production aircraft.

What do you think?