Tough Choices Ahead for B-21 Program.

Author:Harper, Jon

* The Air Force wants to beef up its bomber fleet over the next decade. That could be a boon to B-21 Raider manufacturer Northrop Grumman and its industry partners, but it's unclear whether the initiative will receive sufficient funding.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson recently said the service needs 74 more squadrons--including five additional bomber squadrons--by 2030 to carry out the national defense strategy. The proposal was based on the preliminary results of a study that the service is conducting. The final report will be delivered to Congress in March.

"Right now we have not got the exact mix of [aircraft] tails," Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told reporters during a roundtable. "Part of that dialogue will be the costing out the number of tails, the number of pilots, the number of maintainers. And so that's work that is still to be done."

In the 2020s, the B-21 will be the only bomber in production. In 2015, Northrop Grumman was awarded a contract to build the new stealth aircraft. Much of the details remain secret, but officials have said they expect the procurement cost not to exceed $550 million per plane.

The program is being shepherded by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, and the platform is expected to achieve initial operating capability by the mid-2020s.

"One thing they could do [to increase the size of the bomber force] is not retire some of the legacy bombers," said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"But I think it's no secret that the Air Force has been saying for a while that they want to buy more than 100 of the B-21 bombers, and 100 was the baseline on the program. So I fully expect that when we see the final report, it's going to call for a ... greater number of bombers in production," he added during a...

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