The B-21 Raider, the Air Force’s new bomber now in development, will have as much in common with its Cold War-era predecessors B-1/B-2/B-52 bombers as the F-35 Lightning-II has in common with its World War II-era predecessor P-38 Lightning.

For example, the B-21 represents a significant step forward over the 30-year-old B-2 Spirit, as the B-21 is being designed by Northrop Grumman (who also built the B-2) to survive against the most advanced modern air defence systems such as Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system and China’s J-20 stealth fighter, which entered service in 2017.

The B-21 will be a marvel of contemporary manufacturing that takes advantage of the latest digital capabilities to improve design, manufacturing, and support. Digital development is a new direction in procurement for the Air Force and the Defence Department writ large.

“The digital trinity of digital engineering and management, agile software, and open architecture, is the true successor to stealth. It’s the next big paradigm shift for military tech dominance,” Will Roper, recently departed assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said in his October 2020 report “There is No Spoon: The New Digital Acquisition Reality” (the title references a line from the film The Matrix.)

Rather than just building better systems, digital engineering and management builds systems better, Roper wrote. It opens doors to faster design, seamless assembly, and easier upgrades. With years and decades between platform programs — and defence manufacturers consolidating into mega-primes chasing fewer contract awards, the U.S. does not currently have the initiative, according to Roper. “If this remains status quo, we lose the competition with China and Russia.”

How Digital Processes Build Systems Better

In the realm of digital operations, however, the Air Force moved beyond status quo about five years ago, due in part to efforts by Roper. The new approach to digital operations provides a strategic ability to virtualize the entire lifecycle of an aircraft, from development to production and assembly and then on to sustainment.

In addition to the B-21 Raider, examples of other programs where the Air Force is taking this development tack include: Next Generation Air Dominance (a top secret program to develop a sixth-generation fighter); the A-10 re-wing program; the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program; and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), a Northrop Grumman program to replace the aging LGM-30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system.

For B-21 and these programs, the Air Force is looking for faster cycle times and more affordable systems to counter rapidly evolving threats. Digital development is also the mantra at Northrop Grumman, which is using digital transformation to integrate its design, development, and manufacturing processes and environments.

“We’re all in on doing anything we can to optimize the experience for our end-user, the war fighter, by delivering a better product faster and more efficiently,” said Chris Daughters, sector vice president of Research, Technology and Engineering at Northrop Grumman. “We’ve been working to create state of the art designs in 3-D, but also coupling those with our manufacturing technologies. And, we’ve been able to produce next-generation technology and bring it to life in a very cost effective way.”

This digital transformation, necessary to stay ahead of the rapidly evolving threat environment and which also informs Northrop Grumman’s GBSD program, can arguably be said to have its foundation with the B-21 Raider program.

Accelerated Operations Through Digital Transformation

In just more than two years since completing Critical Design Review on the B-21 Raider, Northrop Grumman brought its digital design of the next-generation bomber to life. With two test aircraft in production today, first flight is estimated to occur in 2022.

“Our relationship with the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (DAF RCO) is the key differentiator for this program,” said Steve Sullivan, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s Strike Division. “We have the shared goal of delivering this weapons system on time – and that means identifying issues early, and moving quickly and decisively together to address those issues and maintain our momentum.”

The B-21 Raider is the first large-scale aircraft development program managed by the DAF RCO.

The B-21 at its very foundation differs from traditional large acquisitions because of Northrop Grumman’s extensive use of innovative digital tools and solutions that enable the company to reduce technical risk and cost on the Raider program. What is particularly important is the company’s deployment of these tools early in the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase.

Northrop Grumman’s digital transformation processes accelerate operations by creating integrated digital models of capabilities and platforms so that improvements can be made in real time, visually reflected in the models. These high-fidelity digital models are shared across technical disciplines and program partners in the areas of design and structural, thermal, electrical, flight control, and signature analyses. Northrop Grumman calls this approach MB(x), or Model-Based Everything. Combined with model-based systems engineering, it is a mindset that seeks ways to optimize modelling and simulation applications, enhancing communication and collaboration across functions and throughout the system life cycle.

“Our approach is a combination of taking off-the-shelf digital tools and finding new, innovative applications that support design, production and sustainment, as well as leaning forward in agile software development and restricted, cloud-based software collaboration,” said Sullivan. “What is most encouraging about the results we continue to see with our approach is the speed at which we’re able to execute efficiently, and the significant cost and risk reduction we’re seeing from design into manufacturing.”

Risk Reduction For The B-21

Risk reduction is top of mind for Northrop Grumman in every aspect of the B-21 program. What once was a cycle of designing, building, prototyping, and testing can now be done digitally and simultaneously, accelerating operations and tamping down risk by reducing the need for final platform integration. This will decrease time to field the B-21 to operating forces, accelerating Air Force capability and improving affordability.

The company’s approach to risk reduction includes a focus on extensive integration and test capacity. With such integrated technological capabilities, it is possible to digitally design, integrate, test, and address issues long before they can arise in the operations and sustainment environments. This will contribute to high quality performance, program affordability, and sustainability.

Northrop Grumman invested early in infrastructure, laboratories, and its workforce at its Manned Aircraft Design Centre of Excellence in Melbourne, FL, allowing it to develop, integrate, and test the bomber’s subsystems with varying levels of fidelity. One example of this is how the company manages hardware and software integration and testing by testing systems in representative mission environments, using a flexible development platform with innovative use of modelling and simulation tools.

Recently, the company completed a demonstration with its flying test bed that validated the maturation of the B-21’s hardware and software integration progress. Demonstrations like these are what continue to build the Air Force’s confidence in the path to first flight of the bomber.

“Not having to have the actual test aircraft up there, but a flight test variant with the same systems, does help on the integration aspects on the article itself,” said Randall Walden, director and Program Executive Officer for the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, as reported in the trade press. “In the last few months we did another successful end-to-end demonstration … to further mature that hardware and software, and it’s working quite well.”


Northrop Grumman is leading the digital transformation revolution in defence capabilities through its software-defined, hardware-enabled approach using modular, open interfaces and architectures. These inherently digital systems can be fielded faster and enable rapid software updates necessary to adapt and stay ahead of adversaries.

Digital systems enable hardware platforms to be fundamentally multifunctional and operate in multiple domains. Digitally transformed defence systems are not restricted by the constraints of the hardware, but can evolve through software upgrades as threats evolve. They can rapidly adapt and deliver missions not originally envisioned for the systems.

The ability to advance capabilities at faster, commercial timescales reduces the fielding time of new war fighter capabilities from years to months, from months to days, and delivers functionality not envisioned when the original system was fielded.

Air Force Global Strike Command chief Gen. Timothy Ray acknowledged as much when he spoke at the Air Force Association’s 2021 Virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “It would take me years to integrate a new standoff missile into the B-2, but with the B-21, given its open mission systems, it will take me months, not years”.