Northrop Grumman Expands Plant 42 as B-21 Continues Development

The B-21 Raider, which might look like the illustration above, is expected to make its first flight in December 2021. Staff illustration by Mike Tsukamoto.

PALMDALE, Calif.—Northrop Grumman is expanding its side of the secretive Plant 42 facility here and hiring thousands of employees while development of the new B-21 bomber remains largely under wraps.

An older tan hangar-turned-production facility sits next to recently built white and blue buildings. Another large hangar is still under construction, and trailers serving as offices are lined up on-site.

Heavy equipment dug through the dirt as speakers praised the evolution of the legacy B-2, which is helping lay the foundation for its next-generation successor, at a recent birthday ceremony at Northrop’s facilities.

The company won’t specifically say whether the growth is driven by the B-21 Raider, only that the new construction is for “programs.” But it has funneled “multiple hundreds of millions” of dollars to improve Plant 42, according to Janis Pamiljans, the president of Northrop’s aerospace sector. The company has also grown from about 25,000 to 28,000 employees in California alone since 2015 and continues to hire.

“We’ve been on a tremendous hiring spree … and you can see the kind of structures being built,” Pamiljans said.

Northrop moved some of its other systems, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and the MQ-4 Triton, to new locations so it can better serve production of those aircraft. The shifts also free up space for other endeavors.

Reporters were not allowed near the new facilities during an escorted visit throughout the Southern California site earlier this week. No other companies that are involved in B-21 development were visible on the premises.

The promise of a new design remained even as Northrop and the Air Force celebrated the B-2 turning 30 years old at an Aug. 20 event. The “Spirit of Missouri” was parked in front of a hangar that is now partially used to produce F-35 jet fuselage and is partially dedicated to “other programs,” Pamiljans said.

The B-21 is eventually expected to replace the stealthy B-2 over the coming decades. Northrop plans to use the Spirit program’s focus on supportability, sustainability, and mission-capable rate as the blueprint for maintaining the B-21 as well.

Northrop officials say they are taking lessons learned in the development and sustainment of low-observable technology, a key to the B-2’s stealth, and applying them to these “other programs,” Pamiljans said.

“The B-2 is setting the path, course for the B-21,” Pamiljans said. “What we’ve learned on B-2, we’re finding baselined into the design of the B-21.”

Eighth Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. James Dawkins told reporters in Palmdale that aspects of B-2 sustainment like computers, maintenance, and materials can naturally be leveraged for the B-21.

He said the platform’s cost and schedule performance are “right on expectations.”

“From that standpoint, it’s been very successful so far,” he said. “We’re really happy about the way Northrop has approached this.”

The Air Force remains mum about the state of B-21 production, other than to occasionally say it is going well. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson said last month the service is planning first flight of the B-21 in December 2021.

The service is so far sticking with its plan to buy at least 100 of the bombers to go with 75 B-52s that will remain in service.

The Air Force and Northrop continue to crunch overall production numbers, and haven’t settled on an exact strategy for phasing out the B-2 as the B-21 comes online. There will be a transition period when both the B-2 and B-21 will be part of the strategic bomber fleet, Dawkins said.

“I’m optimistic they will take lessons learned” from the B-2 for “any type of program” the company is developing, he added.