The Air Force now says it wants a total future bomber fleet to be around 165 aircraft -- not just its fleet of B-21 Long Range Strike Bombers.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee's Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee on May 25, Lt. Gen. Jerry D. Harris, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, was asked about increasing the planned quantity of B-21 Raiders -- the Air Force's future stealth bomber set to join the fleet in the mid-2020s.
The service plans to spend more than $55 billion to acquire 100 of the next-generation aircraft as part of the Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRSB, program.
Rep. 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.
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"Can you give us the strategic logic that allowed you to arrive at the 100, or at least 100 number?" Gallagher asked during the hearing.
Given the increasingly advanced air defense systems deployed by countries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, he added, "It seems to me the right number of bombers should be north of 160."
"And certainly [Lt. Gen. Michael] Moeller agrees and calls for as many as 200 B-21s," Gallagher noted, referring to an analysis study from the retired Air Force general, also a former deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs.
Harris replied, "We do agree that probably 165 bombers is what we need to have."
The 165, however, "refers to the total number of bombers, not the number of B-21s," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek later clarified to Military.com.
The back-and-forth conversation between the generals and lawmakers created confusion over what Harris was referring to, Stefanek said.
The service in 2015 awarded an initial contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. to begin developing the B-21, which will eventually replace a portion of the B-1 Lancer fleet.
But Stefanek could not say how the numbers would be reapportioned to reach 165 bombers.
"As you know, we are in the process of a National Military Strategy review," Stefanek said in an email. "Additionally, [Air Force Global Strike Command] is reviewing their bomber force structure."