The B-1 bomber planes at Ellsworth Air Force Base will eventually be replaced with B-21 bombers that are currently under development, Air Force officials said Monday in a news release.
The Air Force said it outlined plans for its bomber fleet in its Fiscal Year 2019 President’s Budget Request.
“Those that are bomber bases now should expect to be bomber bases in the future,” said Col. John Edwards, 28th Bomb Wing commander. “The Air Force will continue to work the details of fielding the B-21, but we can expect Ellsworth to be a bomber base in the coming years.”
The budget request also detailed a plan to update the B-52 Stratofortress fleet and continue modifications to the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit fleets while the B-21 Raider is developed.
The B-21s are under development by Northrop Grumman. Previous reports indicated the Air Force plans to acquire a minimum of 80 to 100 of the aircraft at a cost of $550 million per unit.
Once sufficient B-21 aircraft are operational, the B-1s and B-2s will be incrementally retired. Delivery and retirement timelines are dependent on the B-21 production and delivery schedules, but past estimates have predicted the delivery of B-21s in the mid-2020s.
“If the force structure we have proposed is supported by the Congress, bases that have bombers now will have bombers in the future,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, formerly the president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. “They will be B-52s and B-21s.”
The B-21, which the Air Force plans to start fielding in the mid-2020s, will eventually become the backbone of the U.S. bomber fleet.
At the end of Desert Storm in 1991, according to the Air Force, the nation had 290 total bombers. Today that force has dropped to 157 bombers at five bomb wings and 15 squadrons.
U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., welcomed the news about Ellsworth's future.
“It’s great to see that the president’s budget request confirms earlier indications that Air Force bases that currently have a bomber presence will have them in the future and that the B-1s will be replaced by the new next-generation B-21 bomber,” Thune said in a written statement. “I will continue to defend Ellsworth’s stellar record of service as a critical component of our national defense and support the modernizations outlined in the bomber vector.”
U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., also lauded the news.
“When America needs a workhorse — when we need to flex our muscles and show our strength — when we need to respond to terrorists in the Middle East or deter a tyrannical North Korean dictator, we often turn to Ellsworth’s bomber fleet,” said Noem in a press release. “The B-1’s have served in a mission-critical role for decades, but it’s time to modernize. With the Powder River Training Complex in our backyard and a community of support surrounding the base, South Dakota is ready to support the B-21. I am thrilled the U.S. Air Force has committed to maintaining the mission-critical role existing bomber bases like Ellsworth will play into the future.”
Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender also weighed in, saying he was "greatly encouraged" by the announcement on Monday.
"The Air Force knows what we know, that Ellsworth, with its modern facilities and its dedicated, hard-working personnel, should continue serving as a bomber base well into the future," Allender said.