The arrival of the B-21 is expected to more than triple the percentage of low-observable bomber aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet by adding larger numbers of a new “stealth” platform intended to reshape the service’s attack tactics and strategy for decades to come.
“100 or more B-21s will mean two-thirds or more of our bomber force will be low-observable, as opposed to 21-percent today,” “Major General Mark E. Weatherington, Commander, Eighth Air Force, and Commander, Joint-Global Strike Operations Center, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in a video interview.
“Gen. Goldfein (former Air Force Chief of Staff) opened the door to a larger B-21 force. There will need to be flexibility as we see how the B-21 comes online,” he said.
The B-21 development strategy, in addition to simply adding more of the bombers, will likely be to speed up production of the platforms as well and deliver them faster to address the needs of the force, in response to the threat environment.
“There will be opportunities to accelerate, extend or adjust the flow of aircraft as the security context changes. We need to be open to that,” Weatherington said.
Larger numbers of B-21s are being discussed due to a variety of reasons, including the well-known success of the program and the simple, clear belief among many Air Force leaders that the force is just too small.
“We will have 125 total bombers before the B-21 begins to join the force in significant numbers, creating the smallest number of bombers we have had since 1940. I do think we will see periods in the next ten to fifteen years where the force gets smaller before it gets bigger,” Weatherington said.
Many B-1 pilots will need to transition to B-21s, a move which will require new training in areas such as avionics, navigation, on-board computing and weapons handling.
“We will spread the enterprise across multiple bases and pursue efficiency with few training units. One of the biggest challenges is we are going to need more pilots,” Weatherington explained.
More stealth aircraft not only increase the extent to which the United States can conduct patrols, launch combat missions and hold greater areas at risk as needed. The higher stealth percentage also impacts the tactical equation as it could enable bombers to penetrate a wider range of enemy air defenses at one time. An attack envelope, or operational purview will be much different with a bomber fleet of this size, a dynamic opening up new mission possibilities for commanders looking to identify and destroy multiple locations of enemy defenses at one time. This increases mission speed, maximizes efficiency and could open a larger air-corridor for less-stealthy aircraft to attack.
A larger force is also expected to improve sustainment and modernization challenges, Weatherington said.
“Our bomber forces are three small fleets, which makes sustainment more challenging,” he added.
Kris Osborn is the new 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.