The U.S. Air Force plans to hold public hearings next month on a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) associated with deciding whether Ellsworth AFB, S.D., or Dyess AFB, Texas, will be the first bed down location for the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber.

The service is to hold the hearings on Oct. 13, 15, 20, and 22, and comments on the draft EIS are due by Nov. 9.

The first of three B-21 bed-down locations, Main Operating Base 1 (MOB 1), will host B-21 operational squadrons, a formal training unit and a Weapons Generation Facility (WGF) for the storage of B-21 nuclear weapons.

The Air Force “determined that adding the B-21 mission to Whiteman AFB (Mo.) while the B-2 mission is still supported there would jeopardize tactical mission readiness,” per the draft EIS. “To ensure an uninterrupted deterrent related to the United States’ nuclear capabilities, the USAF determined that this transfer [of B-2 nuclear weapons to the B-21] should occur after the initial beddown of MOB 1 and that Whiteman AFB will not be considered as a potential alternative for MOB 1 because the B-2 program will remain active at Whiteman AFB until a MOB 1 for the B-21 is established.”

The Air Force is planning to draw down its B-1 bomber fleet first, as the service fields the B-21.

Because the B-21 is projected to be generally quieter than the B-1 and flies at higher levels than the B-1, noise levels would not increase at either base, per the draft EIS.

The Air Force expects first flight of the B-21 in 2022, as the service moves to lighten the training road for crew members of the new stealth bomber, which is to have a unit cost not to exceed $550 million in base year 2010 dollars–about $650 million today (Defense Daily, Sept. 1).

The Air Force had said that the earliest possible first flight date for the bomber was December 2021.

The service has not announced initial operational capability or full operational capability dates for the B-21.

The Air Force is flying the avionics on a testbed aircraft, rather than the B-21 test jet, in an effort to reduce program risk and resolve software and subsystem bugs.

The Air Force has said that Ellsworth AFB is likely to be the MOB 1 location. While the service’s objective is to field 100 B-21s, operational demands may drive that goal up to 145 or more.