According to details revealed in the White House’s budget request for fiscal year 2019, the Air Force intends to begin retiring its fleets of two of the most storied bombers in American history while spending more to retain one of its oldest, in preparation for the arrival of the much anticipated B-21 Raider.
The B-21 Raider, which has been revealed only as a concept photo released by developer Northrop Grumman. Little is publicly known about the platform itself, though some suppositions can be made based on the image and the few statements made by defense officials regarding the program. The design bears a striking resemblance, of course, to its predecessor and one of the two bombers it’s slated to replace, the B-2. It is expected to build upon the B-2’s legacy as a deep penetration bomber, relying on advanced stealth and the incorporation of other “mature systems,” as the Air Force calls them, to claim the title of the world’s most dangerous long range bomber.
Of course, before claiming that title, the B-21 will also have to retire its other American competitor, the supersonic B-1B Lancer. Unlike the nuclear capable B-2, the B-1B Lancer had its nuclear wing clipped as a part of a broader denuclearization treaty with the Russians, but what it lacks in nuclear firepower it makes up for with speed and payload capacity. The B-1B can carry a massive 75,000 pounds of ordnance and attain a maximum speed of Mach 1.25.
As the B-21 program heats up in the coming years, funding for the maintenance and operation of both of these decades old bombers will begin to dry up in favor of the new platform, as the Air Force has plans to field 100 of the new B-21s, at a projected price tag of right around $80 billion. Those 100 new bombers will replace the current active roster of 66 B-1B Lancers and 20 B-2 Spirits the Air Force maintains today.
The B-2 and B-1B won’t be left in the cold however. They will still be subject to minor updating to ensure they remain strategically relevant until the Air Force begins fielding B-21s, sometime in the mid-2020s. However, as two legendary bombers set a course for mothballs, an even older platform is headed for updates. The World War II era B-52 Stratofortress will accompany the B-21 Raider in the skies of the future.
Although it’s been in the skies for decades longer than either the B-2 or the B-1B, the B-52 is expected to take on new engines that will keep the heavy bomber operational for decades to come. The costs of keeping the B-52 operational are certainly negligible compared to price tag associated with developing an entirely new bomber platform, but it’s really new weapons and launch platforms that have managed to keep the B-52 relevant for the foreseeable future.
The Long Range Stand Off Weapon, or LRSO, is a nuclear capable cruise missile that can be fired from the B-52 while keeping it safely out of range of a nation’s air defenses, and the recent deployment of a new conventional rotary launcher allowed the B-52 to set a new record for the number of smart-bombs dropped on enemy forces in a single run, with 24.
“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,” said Gen. Robin Rand, Air Force Global Strike Command commander.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force