Key point: The Air Force wants to improve its long-range strike capabilities.
The U.S. Air Force’s new B-21 stealth bomber could fly as early as December 2021, Air Force vice chief of staff Gen. Stephen Wilson said at an event in Washington, D.C. on July 24, 2019.
Air Force magazine broke the news.
Wilson told the audience he in recent weeks visited Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Melbourne, Florida, where he was “looking at the B-21.” Northrop is “moving out on that pretty fast.” Wilson said, adding he has an app on his phone “counting down the days … and don’t hold me to it, but it’s something like 863 days to first flight.”
“That would put the first flight of the B-21 in December 2021,” Air Force editor John Tirpack noted. “The Air Force has said from the beginning that the first B-21 would be a ‘useable asset’ but has also said it doesn’t expect an initial operating capability with the B-21 before the ‘mid-2020s.’”
The Air Force still is mulling how many B-21s to buy. “We’re exploring the force structure between the B-1, the B-2 and the B-52,” Wilson said.
Wilson stressed that the service needs “at least 100” B-21s.
The Air Force repeatedly has said that, in the 2030s, it will retire its 62 1980s-vintage B-1 bombers and, a few years later, also will retire all 20 '90s-vintage B-2 stealth bombers.
Meanwhile, the service would upgrade 76 B-52s that first flew in the early 1960s and buy at least 100 new B-21 stealth bombers. The result in the 2040s would be a force of around 175 bombers composed of factory-fresh B-21s and 80-year-old B-52s.
"That plan has not changed," Heather Wilson, the former service secretary, said in February 2019. "We need a minimum of 175 bombers, is what we announced last year,” Wilson added, "and that they will be a mix of B-21s and B-52s."