How Many B-21 Bombers Does the Air Force Really Need?

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force's top uniformed officer for acquisition, testifies before the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces panel on May 25, 2017. Screenshot photo.

Rep. Mike Gallagher on Thursday questioned whether the Air Force is low balling the actual number of B-21 Raiders it will need in the future, citing a 2015 AFA Mitchell Institute study that found the service would need roughly 60 bombers in the event of a contingency with North Korea, 103 bombers for Iran, and as many as 258 if conflict were to erupt with Russia.

“Given that a two war standard has traditionally been a critical measurement of our status as a super power it seems to me that the right number of bombers should be north of 160 in order to factor in Korea and Iran contingencies, and certainly Lt. Gen. [Mike] Moeller [the author of the Mitchell study] agrees and calls for as may as 200 B-21s,” said Gallagher (R-Wisc.) during a House Armed Services seapower and projection forces panel.

Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, did not disagree with those numbers, but said the Air Force is waiting to see what comes out of the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review and a review of the national military strategy before it updates its requirement.

“We do agree that probably 165 bombers is what we need to have,” acknowledged Harris. “We don’t want to get in front of [those reviews]. We know we’ll need at least 100, and we’ll possibly? need more than that. We don’t want to throw down a number that will change in a few months.”

The Air Force initially said it needed anywhere from 80 to 100 of the Long-Range Strike Bombers, but has since declared that “at least 100” should be considered the floor, not the ceiling.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service’s top uniformed acquisition officer, said that number is based on a comprehensive analysis of the service’s various ops plans as well as what missions the aircraft will be asked to conduct. He also noted the service must have enough bombers in its inventory to allow for regular depot maintenance and training.

But retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute, cautioned that budget should not be a driving factor in the decision.

“America needs a strategy-driven budget, not a budget-driven strategy, and our strategy calls for an advanced bomber force closer to 200 than 100,” said Deptula.