Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota will be the first operational base for the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider.

The base will also host the stealth bomber’s formal training unit, the service said on 10 June.

B-21 rendering

Source: US Air Force

The USAF says the B-21 is key to maintaining an edge over China and Russia

“We are excited to be selected as the first B-21 main operating base,” says Colonel David Doss, 28th bomb wing commander. “Our selection is a testament to the strategic role the base continues to play in the defence of our nation coupled with the robust relationship we have with our community stakeholders and neighbours.”

The B-21, which is still in development, is supposed to arrive at Ellsworth in the mid-2020s. The USAF anticipates the bomber will complete first flight in the middle of 2022. Northrop is building the first two examples of the B-21 at its facilities at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.

The Department of Defense has proposed buying at least 100 examples of the flying-wing aircraft. The aircraft is intended to replace the USAF’s fleet of 20 Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bombers and 45 Boeing B-1B Lancer supersonic bombers by the 2040s.

The USAF projects each aircraft will cost $564 million (in 2016 dollars). It says the new jets are needed for potential penetrating strikes against sophisticated foes, such as China or Russia. Older strike aircraft, like the B-1B, are vulnerable to being shot down, the service says.

The aircraft would also serve as the primary air component of the nuclear triad, a strategy that aims to have three options for nuclear strike: from aircraft, submarines and land sites.

Ellsworth AFB also hosts B-1Bs.

“Until the B-21s reach full operational capacity, the B-1 Lancers will simultaneously continue their mission at Ellsworth,” says the USAF. “The B-21 mission will eventually absorb the manpower already required by the B-1s and will result in an increase of about 1,600 airmen.”

Whiteman AFB in Missouri and Dyess AFB in Texas will also receive B-21s at a later date.