The precise number of Air Force bombers for the future likely hang in the balance of upcoming budget deliberations, future debates and variables related to the threat environment, yet the composition of what the service’s bomber force will consist of is beginning to more fully take shape.
B-1Bs, B-2s, B-21s and B-52s
While of course the B-1B bomber and B-2 bombers are both being upgraded to fly well into further years until larger numbers of the B-21 arrive, yet the look and make-up of the future bomber force will primarily consist of 76 massively upgraded B-52s and a yet-to-be determined number of B-21s. However, the number 149 seems to get mentioned regularly when it comes to the expected B-21 fleet size, yet the success and promise of the program, and its anticipated performance, may lead the Air Force to increase even further.
“We are getting the B-21 and keeping it on track,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Air Force for Plans and Programs told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in an interesting interview. Nahom went on to express concerns about the upcoming transition into a predominantly B-21 force, saying “transitions are tough because resources can overlap.”
Nahom’s point here seems to suggest that there could be some minor collisions between efforts to produce and deploy new B-21s while simultaneously sustaining and upgrading a smaller force of B-2s and B-1Bs.
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The B-2 for example, while at a fleet size of only 20, are being massively upgraded to fly alongside the B-21 for as long as a decade or two. This is quite significant for an aircraft that is 30 years old already, however the emerging B-2 of today is almost an entirely new aircraft with new Defensive Management System to locate enemy air defenses, a computer processor that is 1,000 fold faster and a host of upgraded communications networks and weapons.
The Air Force plan is to effect a smooth and succesful transition which brings on larger numbers of B-21s while continuing to upgrade and preserve the relevance and functionality of the B-2. Some of the upgrades to the B-2, such as the ongoing integration of the Defensive Management System, will enable the B-2 to build upon its stealth properties and locate enemy air defenses for the specific purpose of eluding and defeating them. Ultimately, the hope would be for the B-21 and B-2 to complement one another, remain networked and offer mission support for several decades to come.
It also might not be surprising for the planned numbers of B-21s to increase, particularly if the transition to the new platform goes well, since the Air Force has for many years now maintained that its bomber fleet size is insufficient to meet demand. At several points in recent years, service senior leaders have regularly described the situation in terms of there being a “bomber deficit.” Years ago, the original plan was to acquire 100 B-21 bombers, however the speed and success of the program, coupled with the need for more bombers driven by the global threat environment, are likely to push the B-21 numbers even higher.
Kris Osborn is the 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