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The U.S. Air Force has rolled out plans to phase out the B-1B and B-2 bomber fleets as it makes way for the new B-21 Raider, which is currently under development by Northrop Grumman.
Air Force officials made public their bomber fleet plans during a Pentagon press briefing for the service’s 2019 fiscal year budget request.
“As part of our decisions presented in the FY19 President’s Budget, the Air Force will update the B-52 bomber fleet and fund development of replacement engines,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather A. Wilson said in a press release. “We will also continue necessary B-1 and B-2 modifications to keep them relevant until the B-21s come on line.”
The plan calls for upgrades to the Air Force’s fleet of B-52 Stratofortress aircraft, while simultaneously modifying and retiring the B-1B and B-2 bombers as more B-21 Raiders become operational — the first B-21 additions are expected to arrive some time in 2025.
“If the force structure we have proposed is supported by the Congress, bases that have bombers now will have bombers in the future,” Wilson said. “They will be B-52s and B-21s.”
Current bomber levels have the Air Force maintaining 20 B-2s and 60 B-1Bs, and the plan is for the future Air Force bomber fleet to have an 175 heavy bombers, made up of B-52s and B-21s, by the 2040s, spacedaily.com reports. The B-1Bs and B-2s are expected to be fully retired by the mid-2030s.
“Modernizing and recapitalizing our bomber force is absolutely central to the recently released National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review,” said Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein. “Our bomber force allows the commander in chief to hold targets at risk anywhere on the globe with unparalleled range and our most diverse payloads.”
Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that the decision to phase out the B-1s and B-2s is probably linked to the budget, and suggested the decision comes earlier than it should.
“Premature retirement of viable long-range strike weapons is just going to make that problem worse,” Gunzinger said. “I would keep the B-2s as long as they have useful operational lives. I would try to get every year I can out of them.”
While retirement of the B-2s is based on an expected leap in capability when the B-21 starts being delivered, Air Force Global Strike Command commander Gen. Robin Rand echoed Gunzinger’s sentiments somewhat — restating the expectation for many more years of service from the B-52.
“With an adequate sustainment and modernization focus, including new engines, the B-52 has a projected service life through 2050, remaining a key part of the bomber enterprise well into the future,” Rand said, also emphasizing the need for a larger bomber fleet based on the operations the Air Force is currently charged with.
“At the end of Desert Storm in 1991 we had 290 total bombers,” Rand said.
“Today that force has dropped to 157 bombers at five bomb wings and 15 total force bomb squadrons. That’s a 46 percent decrease in our bomber force while we have conducted continuous combat operations such as Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, Odyssey Dawn, Inherent Resolve and Freedom’s Sentinel, in addition to continuous bomber rotations in the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command areas of responsibility.”