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Tinker Air Force Base chosen as B-21 bomber maintenance hub

Tinker Air Force Base chosen as B-21 bomber maintenance hub
A rendering of the B-21 bomber, which is under development by Northrop Grumman Corp. (U.S. Air Force)

Maintenance and sustainment work on the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation stealth bomber, the B-21, will be headed by Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, the Air Force said late last week.

Tinker is home to the Air Force Sustainment Center, which provides depot maintenance and supply chain management. The center already maintains such aircraft as the B-1B Lancer, the B-52 Stratofortress, the KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft and the F-22 Raptor.

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Edwards Air Force Base near Lancaster will be in charge of testing and evaluation of the new bomber, which is set to be delivered to the Air Force in the mid-2020s by prime contractor Northrop Grumman Corp.

Northrop Grumman, which won the B-21 contract in 2015, is building the bomber at its plant nearby in Palmdale.

The split of duties between Tinker and Edwards relates to each base’s mission and its current infrastructure, said Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. For example, Edwards has long been the center for new aircraft tests because of its prime location. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was tested there, as was the F-117 Nighthawk.

“It has great airspace, is located over unpopulated areas, has very, very long runways, which are useful for recovering and launching advanced aircraft and taxiing tests,” Gunzinger said. “Those all combine to make it the obvious choice.”

In April, an Air Force official said the bomber had completed its preliminary design review and that he was “comfortable” with the progress made by Northrop Grumman. The next step for the bomber was critical design review.

The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 B-21s. To meet the demand, Northrop Grumman has been on a rapid hiring pace in Palmdale. A company official has said it expects to have 5,200 employees by late 2019 at the site, which is part of the Air Force’s massive Plant 42 complex.

Northrop Grumman has been building new facilities at its Palmdale location, said Jim Purtee, Palmdale city manager. That’s where the company also churns out the Global Hawk high-altitude surveillance drone for the Air Force, the closely related Triton drone for the Navy and center fuselages for the F-35.

Aerospace contractors in the area — including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Boeing — have told Palmdale officials that they are looking to employ 5,000 to 10,000 people in the next five to 10 years, he said. To accommodate increased traffic in the area, the city is looking to apply for federal funding to improve the roads outside Plant 42.

To qualify, Palmdale would need to prove that there is a substantial increase in traffic. The city believes it can make a case, Purtee said.

The B-21 will replace the B-1B and B-2 aircraft at three existing bomber bases beginning in the mid-2020s. So far, the Air Force has selected Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri as “reasonable alternatives” for the B-21, though its final decision on bases is expected in 2019.

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