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Boats 04-11-2022 04:22 AM

As classified B-21 bomber nears flight, secret facility sees more curious ‘probing’
 
As classified B-21 bomber nears flight, secret facility sees more curious ‘probing’
By: Valerie Insinna - Breaking Defense News - 04-08-22
Re: https://breakingdefense.com/2022/04/...mpaign=dfn-ebb

Home to top secret projects, Air Force's Plant 42 is nirvana for aviation enthusiasts, who apparently sometimes take their interest too far.
Rendering B-21 Raider link: https://sites.breakingmedia.com/uplo....-1536x864.png

PALMDALE, Calif.: Weird things keep happening at Air Force Plant 42. Drunk drivers ramming into barbed wire fences. A lost traveler looking for a gas station. Seemingly repetitive auto accidents. As the Air Force gets ready for first flight of the highly classified B-21 bomber, service officials told Breaking Defense the secretive facility where it is being built has seen a rising number of incursions — suspected snoopers hoping to sneak a peak at the latest secret project.

“We are seeing increased incidents of what I will call probing,” said David Smith, director of Air Force Plant 42, where Northrop Grumman is building the service’s new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider.

Among aviation enthusiasts, Plant 42 has a mythic reputation not unlike Area 51 due to the number of black programs that are developed and tested within the 5,800 acres of the desert facility.

The site is the home of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division, which has been responsible for creating some of the most iconic experimental aircraft on the planet, including the U-2 spyplane and SR-71 Blackbird. Northrop produced the B-2 Spirit onsite, and the facility is also used to test NASA aircraft such as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) plane that uses an infrared telescope to observe astronomic phenomena.

As such, the surrounding area is prime tailspotting territory, and it is not uncommon for individuals to approach Plant 42 with cameras, hoping to catch a glimpse of something secretive.

“We have one individual … who likes to walk their dog in the desert,” Smith said. “There’s bad things in the desert at night, but [he] walks their dog in the desert along the fence line dressed in black with a high resolution camera. [He] likes to do it at 3:30 in the morning and lives four miles away. So for some reason, [he] drives four miles [to the plant].”

Sometimes, unusual things happen. A couple months ago, for instance, a man whose automobile had run out of fuel had tried to scale Plant 42’s fence in the hopes of finding a gas station.

“He saw this double layered, anti-terrorism force protection fence line with barbed wire and said, ‘Gee, if there’s a double layered fence line with barbed wire, there must be a gas station on the other side of that. So let’s climb over the fence. Because that’s where we’ll find a gas station,’” he said. “At least that was his story when our defenders caught him.”

But as suspicious and unbelievable as the story seems, when the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations looked into the incident, they found no evidence that the man had nefarious intentions. While foreign intelligence would certainly be interested in America’s next generation stealth bomber, at least for the incidents described here, none are believed to be linked to any serious foreign espionage or surveillance operations, just to the curious and overzealous.

Smith mentioned another recent set of incursions near the facility’s “Site 3,” where sensitive operations take place. Within the span of two weeks, three auto accidents occurred where a driver peeled off the road, plowing into the fence.

“I’m sitting back going, this is no longer an accident, right? This is somebody trying to figure out what is our level of response control,” he said. “It turns out — based on what we found — that it probably was a series of accidents, and it was happenstance. But that’s the kind of thing that as a plant in total, and in particular our security forces, we can’t relax on.”

While companies such as Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop operate onsite production and test facilities at Plant 42, the Air Force is charged with maintaining the facility’s infrastructure and security. Service officials declined to get into the details of the different defensive tools Plant 42 has at its disposal, but acknowledged that the facility has a “geo-fence” that knocks out small drones that users attempt to fly overhead. Another critical tool for the facility is a simple one: Keeping secretive aircraft flights or movements under the cloak of darkness.

“We try to embrace the dark, do the best we can by utilizing after hours operations for sensitive programs,” Smith said.

B-21 Getting Close To First Flight

Breaking Defense visited Plant 42 on Thursday during travel with Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who toured the B-21 production line. According to a readout, Hicks “saw the B-21 initial flight test aircraft in the loads-calibration fixture, beginning its verification and validation process.” (Breaking Defense and other reporters were not permitted to see the B-21.)

Hicks’ visit to Plant 42, where Northrop current has six B-21s in production, comes just a day after the Air Force awarded a $108 million contract to the company for advanced procurement. The funds will pay for long lead supplies and components that will build the first production lot of B-21s.

The Air Force requested $5 billion for the program in fiscal 2023, including $1.7 billion in procurement funding. Air Force leaders have declined to disclosed exactly how many bombers that will buy. In all, the Air Force intends to buy at least 100 B-21s over the course of the program of record to replace the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit, taking those bombers’ place at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas; Whiteman AFB, Mo.; and Ellsworth AFB, S.D. Each B-21 is projected to cost approximately $550 million in FY10 dollars.

In a statement, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown called the B-21 a “stand-out example” of innovation.

“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,” Brown said.

“The quality of the aircraft build, coupled with its open systems architecture design and built-in margin for future growth, will provide our warfighters the competitive advantage we’ll need to deter current and future conflicts, and fight and win if called upon to do so.”

There are signs that the Raider is hurtling towards its first flight, which could happen as early as this year.

Last month, Rapid Capabilities Office Director Randall Walden told Air Force Magazine that the first B-21 bomber had moved off the production line and into a calibration facility, where it will undergo testing to ensure the structure of the aircraft meets the Air Force’s requirements.

“It’s got landing gear. … It’s got wheels on it. … It’s got the wings on it. It really looks like a bomber,” Walden told the magazine.

After calibration tests are over, the first B-21 will be powered on and its engines started for the first time for additional testing. From there, the aircraft will proceed into taxi tests before it’s rolled out and flown for the first time.

However, due to the secretive nature of the program, many details remain classified — including the projected date of the first flight and first delivery of the new bomber.

“No mention has been made of a desired speed, although the combination of long range, large payload, and cost constraints strongly suggest B-21 will be subsonic,” the Congressional Research Service wrote in a September report on the program. “Details such as the B-21’s size, required stealth, structure, number and type of engines, projected weapons, and onboard sensors remain classified, which makes evaluating the proposed cost difficult.”

Tags: Air Force Plant 42 - B-21 Raider - Gen. CQ Brown - Kathleen Hicks - Northrop Grumman
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Note: TOP SECRETE - means just that. Better safe than sorry. They will never learn!


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