Lawmakers on Thursday said the Air Force might need to significantly expand the size of the future B-21 Raider stealth bomber fleet -- and a general agreed.
The service plans to spend more than $55 billion to acquire a fleet of 100 of the next-generation aircraft as part of the Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRSB, program. The service in 2015 awarded the initial contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. to begin developing the planes that will eventually replace a portion of the B-1 Lancer fleet.
During a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., questioned whether the Air Force should buy more of the bombers, which will be designed in part to fight through surface-to-air missiles and protect coalition aircraft and drones.
"Can you give us the strategic logic that allowed you to arrive at the 100, or at least 100 number?" Gallagher said. Given the increasingly advanced air defense systems deployed by such countries as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, he added, "it seems to me the right number of bombers should be north of 160."
Testifying at the hearing about the Air Force's fiscal 2018 budget request were Lt. Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, the military deputy at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition; Lt Gen. Jerry D. Harris, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements; and Maj Gen Scott A. Vander Hamm, assistant deputy chief of staff for Air Force operations.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., agreed on the need to buy more of the aircraft, nicknamed in honor of the Doolittle Raiders, as did Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn.
"As your witness testimony states, the Air Force remains committed to a fleet size of 100 B-21s, but I have heard numbers from other people we need even more," Hartzler said.
The program saw a proposed increase in the FY18 budget from $1.3 billion to $2 billion -- an increase of $700 million, or 54 percent -- as the project ramps up in planning, testing and evaluation and development efforts.
Bunch said the service isn't "ruling out" the possibility it may need to buy more of the bombers.
"It's not just 100 to go do missions, it's 100 to do the training, to do the depot maintenance," he said. "But we based that looking at our ops plans, analysis-run scenarios, and we came up with a number that we believe [in]."
Bunch added, "We are comfortable that's a minimum number."
Scheduled to begin flying missions sometime in the mid-2020s, the B-21 "will be able to do the conventional and nuclear mission once we get it certified," he said.
Each bomber, made by Northrop Grumman, is estimated at $550 million per aircraft in 2010 dollars, according to the Pentagon.
Harris, the general in charge of strategic plans, was even more direct on the service's need for a higher quantity of Raiders.
"We do agree that probably 165 bombers is what we need to have," he said.
But the generals don't want to circulate a final number before Pentagon officials have a chance to complete the so-called National Military Strategy review designed to assess future war-fighting needs.
"Our approach to this is, it's an early decision, we know we're going to need at least 100, we'll possibly need more than that," he said, "but these aren't inexpensive weapons systems. We don't want to throw down a number that may change in several months."