A U.S. Air Force goal for 220 bombers–75 re-engined Boeing [BA] B-52Hs and 145 Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth aircraft–could change, Air Force Global Strike Commander Gen. Timothy Ray said on Sept. 14.
“220 is a living number,” Ray told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ forum for the Air Force Association virtual Air, Space and Cyber conference. “When I came in, it was 175. It was Power Point. It wasn’t a real plan. I spent most of the day with a lot of the [congressional defense] committees two weeks ago talking about the bomber roadmap. I think we’ve put some real rigor into that. It’s a real plan now.”
In an email, a spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee confirmed the briefing and said that the Air Force Global Strike Command “is still assessing the total number of bombers required.”
“While they have always stated at least 100 B-21s, a final number has not been decided,” per the email.
While the Air Force’s 2018 bomber roadmap had put forth a goal for 175, Air Force Global Strike Command has pushed for “north of 220” aircraft in the bomber fleet through a number of paths to reach that number over the next five years (Defense Daily, Apr. 9).
Ray said that the Air Force’s bomber modernization strategy involves making sure the Boeing B-1 “is viable,” re-engining the B-52s, and ensuring the service has enough Northrop Grumman B-2s until the Air Force can field the B-21 in sufficient numbers.
“We’ve got to continue to push our way through that bow wave to get us to the right mix,” Ray said. “The on-ramps, the bigger numbers are several years away, and all we can do is pave the path to success.”
Air Force leaders have said that the service needs stand-in weapons, such as stealth bombers, and advanced stand-off weapons, such as those with hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 and greater, to combat potential near peer adversaries.
The U.S. Air Force conducted its third and final captive-carry flight test of the Lockheed Martin [LMT] hypersonic AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) under the wing of a B-52H bomber off the southern California coast last month in preparation for the first planned booster flight test of ARRW later this year.
“I think what we want to be able to do is make sure that what we build is affordable, sustainable, and more rapidly modifiable,” Ray said on Sept. 14 of the bomber modernization strategy. “That keeps us in the game. B-21 will feature all those things. Parts of what we’re doing with the B-52 will do that. The short term things we need to do and are having some success with are integrating hypersonics on the bombers. We’re eager for the opportunity to put ARRW on the B-1.”
In April, the Air Force said that it was ending its 16-year continuous bomber presence (CBP) at Andersen AFB, Guam to move to a bomber task force model (BTF) of deploying bombers rapidly, as needed, from the continental United States.
U.S. Central Command, Air Force Global Strike Command, United States Air Forces in Europe and Pacific Air Forces “are having the conversation not about whether or not we do these [BTF],” Ray said, “but about how we get really good at it– how really good we can be as integrated staffs; how really good we can be at the bed downs, the logistics; how to quickly turn that presence into strong combat capability at the drop of a hat for our teammates that are in the AOR [Area of Responsibility].”
The Air Force’s fiscal 2021 presidential budget request included plans to cut 17 Boeing B-1B Lancer bombers from the fleet and leave 44 in operation, before retiring the whole fleet by 2036. The Air Force also plans to cut back on its Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bombers as the B-21 production aircraft come off the line later this decade.
A 220 number would mean 145 B-21s and 75 re-engined and upgraded Boeing B-52Hs in a future Air Force bomber force. The Air Force, however, has stated that its objective number of B-21s is 100.
Northrop Grumman is building B-21 test jet number 1 in Palmdale, Calif. The Air Force has said that Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota is likely to be the first base to receive the B-21 and a training unit.
The U.S. 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).
Before COVID-19, the Air Force had said that the earliest possible first flight date for the bomber was December 2021.