It is by no means impossible to envision a U.S. Air Force fleet of as many as 150-to-180 new B-21 bombers, should the service’s force-size vision come to fruition by virtue of the pace and success of construction, new requirements driven by threats and of course budget availability.
Air Force senior leaders are looking to expand upon earlier plans for the B-21 which called for 80-to-100 of the bombers and a broader related effort to stay on course to massively increase the number of bomber squadrons… and B-21s.
Gen. Arnold Bunch, Commander of Air Force Material Command, is among the service’s senior leaders managing the production and ultimate sustainment of the B-21. He believes the industrial base capacity, and success of the program thus far, are such that the Air Force “could go higher” than 100 B-21s, possibly much higher.
“As I look at how we set up the mission system and the open systems architecture for the B-21, we are going to retain those aircraft for a long period of time because I am going to bring new technologies in. For small fleets it is hard to get a vendor base,” Bunch told Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, in a recent video interview.
At one point in the conversation, Deptula floated the idea of “180 B-21s,” a number that may actually be within the realm of the possible. While of course many production specifics on the program are not available for security reasons, as it is a “black program,” there has been vocal and widespread consensus that the program continues to be on track and very successful. Bunch has indicated that the exact numbers of B-21s, and the pace of construction, will be determined as manufacturing continues to make progress and budgets unfold.
During the discussion, Deptula made a significant and often discussed point about how the Cold War-inspired B-2 program was massively cut from plans to build as many as 134 bombers down to 21. He is urging Congress and senior military planners not to make what he called “the same mistake.”
When the B-2 came into existence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the former Soviet Union was breaking up and opening up. The Cold War was ending, some threat observers may have thought that there may be less of a need for an expensive stealth bomber engineered to elude and destroy Soviet air defenses. Such a perspective, while perhaps developed at a particular time in history, may have been short sighted or fallen victim to an overly near-term or shallow perspective.
By contrast, there is little question that current threats are driving a significant need for the B-21, given the technical advances of enemy air defenses and rival major power military modernization.
Kris Osborn is Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.