The B-21 Raider, which will really be much more than just a bomber, looms over the Air Force like a giant shadow. By every indication, the public reveal of the aircraft, two of which are under construction now, will be the biggest such moment since its progenitor, the B-2, was rolled out, 33 years ago. At the same time, the test force that is set to usher it into an operational capacity has been stood up for some time now, along with new facilities to accommodate it at Edwards AFB. While we have seen this task force’s patch before, now we get a glimpse at its challenge coin, which includes an especially sinister motto.
The challenge coin images come to us via our friend and accomplished photojournalist Ashley Wallace. He collects rare military patches and challenges coins, and this is one of the most prized in his collection, which you can examine more of over on Instagram.
Three years ago we worked to decode the first appearance of the B-21 Combined Test Force patch, which looked identical to the side of the challenge coin with the reaper and the name “PRAENUNTIUS” or “harbinger of things to come” on it, which you can read about in full here. As if that wasn’t ominous enough, the unit that is tasked with bringing the B-21 to life’s challenge coin presents another motto on its flipside that actually pairs directly with the other: “HUC VENIT MALUM.”
We have inquired about this Latin term with multiple people. A number of translations have come from it, but many of them pretty much say a similar thing in different ways. This mainly includes “here comes evil,” but by most indications, including a Latin professor’s, the motto is a reference to a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “something wicked this way comes.”
A synopsis from nosweatshakespeare.com reads:
With the help of his wife Macbeth murders King Duncan, and from that moment on things change. He does become king but paranoia begins to affect him and he takes extreme measures, including more murders, to cover up his crime and keep his hold on power. He very quickly descends into a state of pure evil, and Shakespeare saturates the text with images of evil, hell, violence, darkness, associated with him. To show the extent of his depravity Shakespeare shows one of his agents murdering a child onstage.
The witches, supernatural creatures, are representatives of pure evil, their existence being entirely devoted to destroying human beings. Macbeth is their current big project and they watch his decline. When he can’t stand his guilt and fear anymore he decides to seek the witches out to find out what’s going to happen to him. They know he’s coming, and as he approaches, the second witch tells her sisters: ‘By the pricking of my thumbs/Something wicked this way comes.’
He is now a thing, not a person, and very far from the hero he was at the beginning of the play. He is not just a thing, but something wicked, coming this way. It’s a terrifying image – the kind of thing that terrifies us in horror movies.
There is also the Ray Bradbury horror/fantasy novel by the same name with its own evil connotations.
Regardless, the Shakespearean-callback plays nicely into the aforementioned harbinger motto, as well, as the Combined Test Force is there to usher in what will be the most capable, sinister, and deadly aircraft the force Air Force has ever fielded.
Below the motto on the challenge coin, there is also the logo of the No Fear clothing brand. This has become a popular symbol for having “no fear” in some U.S. military aviation communities, including the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). For instance, the logo was seen on the front of a 160th SOAR MH-6 Little Bird helicopter during a training exercise in 2019.
The side of the challenge coin with the motto also mentions Northrop, the 412th Test Wing, and the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center’s (AFOTEC) Detachment 5 (Det 5). The 420th Flight Test Squadron, the designated Combined Test Force unit, which the Air Force activated at Edwards Air Force Base in California in 2019, is assigned to the 412th Test Wing. AFOTEC Detachment 5, also based at Edwards, is responsible for operational test and evaluation of various types of aircraft, including bombers.
The appearance of the challenge coin comes as work on the B-21 program continues to progress steadily. As of January, two Raiders were under construction at Northrop Grumman’s portion of Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, according to Randall Walden, head of service’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which is overseeing the B-21 program. The first aircraft, which Walden had said was “starting to look like an airplane” back in August 2020, is now due to make its first flight sometime in mid-2022. There had been hope that this event would occur before the end of this year, but there had also already been indications that the timeline would get pushed back.
“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,” Walden had told Air Force Magazine in an interview that was published last month. “We’re working not only in the flight test activities, but also working with the government test infrastructure to make sure that what we’re doing, from a system integration point of view, makes sense.” The mention of flight activities likely includes surrogate demonstrator aircraft, like the specially outfitted Gulfstream owned by Northrop Grumman that has been highly active over the Pentagon’s secure test ranges, but also potentially some form of classified technology demonstrators or other existing platforms.
Walden would not say specifically what issue or issues had been responsible for delaying the first flight, but said they “required some … basic changes to the design, of which we have a good understanding today through ground testing and engine testing.” He added that problems with thrust generation, linked to the aircraft’s complex stealthy engine intakes and their serpentine ducting, something that became public knowledge in 2018, have been resolved.
Walden further explained that the second prototype was being used to further prove out advanced production techniques that will be required to produce the bombers in quantity. “We’re very pleased with the … very high percentages of efficiency … as compared to No. 1,” he said of the construction of the number two aircraft.
“The second one is really more about structures, and the overall structural capability,” he added. “We’ll go in and bend it, we’ll test it to its limits, make sure that the design and the manufacturing and the production line make sense.”
As noted, the 420th Flight Test Squadron is already waiting at Edwards to begin flight testing prototype B-21s. There has been significant construction at that base ahead of the arrival of these bombers, as well, which you can read about more in these past War Zone pieces.
Beyond that, the service is already laying the groundwork for the first operational squadron, which is set to be activated at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota sometime in the mid-2020s. Additional squadrons are then expected to subsequently stand up at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com