The U.S. Air Force has announced that it won’t retire any more B-1 Lancer bombers until more of the new B-21 Raider join the fleet. 

Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs LTG David S. Nahom spoke before the House Armed Services Committee on June 8 about the plan to retain the older B-1s.

Darlene Costello, the Air Force acting acquisition executive reported that while the first two B-21 Raider bombers are complete and ready for testing the program isn’t ready to accelerate yet.

The Air Force wants to acquire at least 145 B-21 Raiders from Northrop Grumman, estimated to cost in excess of $90 billion. So far, the program is on schedule and, even more importantly, on budget after the vast cost overruns of the F-35 fighter program

B-21 bomber
B-21 bomber with its payload including air-to-air missiles. (U.S. Air Force)

LTG Nahom said that after the first 17  B-1 bombers are retired the remaining 45 bombers will be kept in service “until these units shake hands with the B-21s as they arrive. We have no intention of going below 45 because the combatant commanders need that firepower in the next five, seven, 10 years until the B-21s start showing up in the numbers we need them.”

Secrecy Shrouds the B-21 Raider Program

The B-21 Raider will be a huge upgrade over the 30-year-old B-2 Spirit. The Raider is being designed to survive against the most advanced modern air defense systems that it may face. These include Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system and China’s J-20 stealth fighter, which entered service in 2017.

“The digital trinity of digital engineering and management, agile software, and open architecture, is the true successor to stealth. It’s the next big paradigm shift for military tech dominance,” Will Roper, the former assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, said in his October 2020 report There Is No Spoon: The New Digital Acquisition RealityIn the paper, Roper conducted a front-end analysis considering different concepts to accomplish the long-range strike mission. These concepts included large aircraft carrying long-range standoff weaponry, conventionally armed ballistic missiles, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, and other configurations. 

The exact B-21 design remains classified (the Air Force has only released an artist’s rendering of the bomber), yet, we know that the B-21 is designed around three axes:

First, a large and flexible payload bay capable of carrying a full range of current and future armament; second, an expansive range; and third, a projected average procurement unit cost of $550 million per plane in FY2010 dollars. The procurement cost was announced publicly to encourage competing manufacturers to constrain their designs.

Artist’s rendition of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber. (Wikipedia)

There Won’t Be a Further Drawdown of B-1s

Congressmembers asked Air Force officials if the Air Force would further drawdown the 30-year-old B-1 fleet as B-21 development continues. “Flat out, no,” replied Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration, and Requirements LTG S. Clinton Hinote dispelling any such speculation.

“This is why I say, the risk in the bomber portfolio is high. We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to accelerate the B-21 capability as quickly as we can. But in the short term, the answer is no,” Hinote added. The decisions on whether to extend the service life of some bombers and the schedule for the B-21 “were made five, 10, 15 years ago,” under the Budget Control Act, and the decision was made to prioritize readiness over modernization, Hinote continued.

The 17 B-1s that are in the process of being removed are the most difficult and expensive to maintain. Their removal is expected to improve readiness across the fleet. “We can actually have more airplanes available for the combatant commander in the interim by getting rid of the oldest, most problem-prone aircraft in the fleet. We think that’s paying off,” he said.

The transition from counter-terrorist operations to near-peer competition with China and Russia more than ever creates the need for an updated bomber force. 

The B-21 Raider program is named in honor of the Doolittle Raiders of World War II fame.