The Air Force’s future is both moving forward and tied to the past. The bombers of the future have already been decided: they are the B-21 Raider, which is currently under development, and the venerable B-52 Stratofortress, a holdover from the Cold War, the airframes of which are older than the pilots flying them.
The plan is already in place Lieutenant General David Nahom, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, told to members of Congress on Thursday. The funding request is part of the Air Force’s plan to modernize its bomber fleet and prepare for the changing needs of national security, mainly conflict with near-peer adversaries.
LTG Nahom said that the Air Force’s shift to preparing for a conflict with a near-peer nation, such as China or Russia, is the driving force behind having a two-bomber fleet. Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee, he said: “On the bomber fleet, there’s nothing more important to the Air Force. If you look at what the bombers bring, no one else brings it. Our joint partners don’t bring it, our coalition partners don’t bring it.”
One of the questions that lawmakers asked was why the Air Force was planning on moving away from the much newer designs of the B-1 and B-2 bombers and keeping such an old airframe as the B-52. Nahom explained that although many of the B-52s are much older in years, the flying hours on the B-52s are much lower as they frequently sat fully loaded on a tarmac, waiting for an alert or a call to go to war.
The plan is to upgrade the B-52s, replacing their engines, adding new and improved radar capability as well as other new technologies. General Nahom said the Air Force would be able to do things with the existing B-52s that they wouldn’t be able to do with a B-1 or a B-2.
In mid-March last year, the Air Force decided that Ellsworth Air Force Base will be the home for the first two B-21 Raider squadrons. One squadron will be used for training and the other will be operational. The B-21s are slated to be operational by the mid-2020s, but no later than 2025.
The B-21 heavy bomber is being manufactured by Northrop Grumman. It is part of the Long-Range Strike Bomber program (LRS-B) and projected to be a long-range, stealth strategic bomber for the United States Air Force capable of delivering conventional and thermonuclear weapons for the next few decades. The Air Force plans on procuring 100 of them. Each one will cost an estimated $550 million dollars.
The B-21 was formally named “Raider” in honor of the Doolittle Raiders. (The final remaining survivor of the Doolittle Raid of World War II, LTC Richard E. Cole retired, was present at the naming ceremony.) The “21” in the name refers to the bomber being the Air Force’s bomber for the 21st century.
If all goes well the Air Force’s plan is to retire their 1980s-vintage B-1 bombers in the early 2030s and then a few years later, to retire all of the ’90s-vintage B-2 stealth bombers.
The B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit will remain part of the fleet but the OPTEMPO for the use of the B-1 fleet has left it pretty much broken down due to overuse in the endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Last year, only six of the Air Force’s B-1 fleet were fully mission-capable. That is a huge dropoff from the nearly 52 percent mission-capable rate for the B-1s during 2018.
Under the Air Force’s FY2021 budget, they propose cutting 17 B-1s, thus removing the most worn-out aircraft in the inventory. It is believed that the Air Force will be able to maintain the fleet of B-1s flying until the B-21 is ready to take over and becomes operational. The B-21 Raider is slated to make its maiden flight in October of this year.