The U.S. Air Force has released a final 458-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for two possible first bed down locations for the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber at Ellsworth AFB, S.D., or Dyess AFB, Texas.
The final B-21 EIS comes as the Air Force said on March 15 that it has delivered to the congressional defense committees a bomber force structure report required by Section 133 of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The service said that the report is classified, as “the [bomber force structure] topic was unable to be covered at that [unclassified] level.”
Yet, Section 133 of the fiscal 2021 NDAA provides that the report “shall be submitted in unclassified form, but may include a classified annex” and that the Air Force “shall make available to the public the unclassified form of the report.”
Per the final B-21 EIS, the first B-21 bed down site–Main Operating Base 1 (MOB 1)–“will support training of personnel and crewmembers in the operation and maintenance of B-21 aircraft in an appropriate geographic location that can provide sufficient airfield, facilities, infrastructure and airspace to support the B-21 training and operations.”
The Air Force has said that Ellsworth AFB is the service’s preferred location for MOB 1.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions on in-person public hearings, the Air Force said that it had held four virtual public hearings via Zoom last October and that between 25 and 40 people participated in each meeting. The service said that it had addressed concerns of Native American tribes, including the Cheyenne, Standing Rock Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Crow–concerns first expressed in 2014, about effects of B-21 overflights on Native American sacred areas and ceremonies, the visual effects to the sites of overflights, chaff, and flares, and effects on the sites from subsonic and supersonic noise.
For example, the Air Force said that it will exclude overflights below 12,000 feet MSL over the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in parts of the Powder River Training Complex (PRTC).
The service said that no impacts to “elevated ground structures,” wind farms, oil and gas operations, or mining are expected in the PRTC.
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 is planning to draw down its B-1 bomber fleet first, as the service fields the B-21.
The fiscal 2021 NDAA allows the Air Force to cut 17 Boeing [BA] B-1B Lancer bombers from the fleet to meet the goal of 45. The service plans to retire the fleet by 2036. The Air Force also has planned to cut back on its Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bombers as the company’s B-21 Raiders come off the line later this decade.
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 are expected to be lower around both possible MOB 1 bases, per the final B-21 EIS.
“Flight operations would increase by up to 15.8 percent at Ellsworth AFB,” per the EIS. “Total flight operations at the PRTC would increase by 41.1 percent. This could lead to increased congestion and/or scheduling impacts. However, because the B-21 would tend to use a range of higher altitudes that are currently underutilized, airspace would not likely be adversely impacted.”
The Air Force expects first flight of the B-21 in 2022, as the service moves to lighten the training load 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, 2020).
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.
While the service has not disclosed the type of the avionics testbed aircraft for the classified B-21 program, aircraft watchers have speculated that the avionics testbed aircraft is a green Boeing 737 registered to the Air Force at Bolling AFB, where the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which oversees the B-21 program, is located.
The Air Force 737 jet, which has made flights in southern California, formerly belonged to Wells Fargo Bank [WFC] and then to Denmar Technical Services before entering Air Force service last year. Denmar Technical Services bills itself as a Reno-based provider of radar measurement systems and services.
As the Pentagon reviews key weapons programs for possible procurement changes under the Biden administration, the Air Force said last month that it had briefed Congress on a “north of 220” bomber plan (Defense Daily, Feb. 25). Yet, last December, Mark Thompson, a national security analyst at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), wrote that the B-21 and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) are the Air Force programs “most vulnerable to budget paring” by the Biden administration.
Northrop Grumman has said that it is well on its way to meeting milestones ahead of a low-rate initial production (LRIP) decision on the B-21 Raider stealth bomber—two of which are on the company’s production line in Palmdale, Calif.
The future bomber force is to include 75 re-engined B-52Hs, at least 100 B-21s and possibly 145 or more of the advanced stealth bombers.