The Air Force says it will retire the B-1 and B-2 more than a decade earlier than planned, paving the way for the new B-21 stealth bomber. A roadmap for the USAF’s program, the Bomber Vector, lays out plans to retire the B-1 “no later than 2036” and the B-2 “no later than 2032.” (Those dates are subject to minor changes, however).
Why the early retirement? According a Bomber Vector draft obtained by Air Force Magazine, Global Strike Command projections indicate that the Air Force simply doesn’t have enough manpower to operate all four types of aircraft. Therefore, the B-1 and B-2 go away early and the B-52 will receive an upgrade so it can be kept in service into the 2050s.
The B-1 is a long-range multi-role bomber that is capable of flying intercontinental missions without refueling. It is able to perform a variety of missions including that of a conventional weapons carrier for theater operations. The B-2 Spirit is a multi-role bomber that can deliver both conventional and nuclear munitions. The B-52 is a heavy, long-range bomber capable of a variety of missions including flying at high subsonic speeds at altitudes up to 50,000 feet (15,166.6 meters) and can carry conventional or nuclear ordnance with global precision navigation capabilities.
The Iconic B-52 Isn’t Going Anywhere Though
The B-52 is considered to be the best option to retain because it is less expensive and easier to maintain while possessing the most desirable attributes. Since the vintage B-52 is too radar-reflective to get close to enemy airspace, it is potentially going be equipped with new engines and standoff weapons that will allow it to shoot into enemy territory while still being far outside the range of enemy air defense systems. Among these weapons is the LRSO, described by the Vector (as reported by Air Force Magazine) as the AGM-180/181, which might be a reference to two different versions under development by competitors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.
Global Strike Command’s primary stated goal is to “pursue the optimal bomber force mix.” Adding the B-21 to the existing line-up would create a fleet of 257 aircraft. Following the retirement of the B-1 and B-2, the USAF expects to have a fleet of at least 100 B-21s and 75 B-52s.
Future Tense – Enter the B-21 Raider
Meantime, preparations are being made for the B-21, nicknamed the Raider. The new bomber will be able to evade more capable future radar systems. Some experts claimed the B-2 looked no larger than a hummingbird on a radar screen when it was first built. The B-21 would have to be even more stealth. A Congressional Research Service report released this summer said the bomber’s characteristics were “investigated in detail against current and anticipated threats.”
The B-21 will be operated either by a crew or autonomously. If unmanned, the bomber could linger over targets much longer, requiring fewer sorties and hold an enemy hostage much longer.
New secret repair facilities and climate-controlled storage space for exotic stealth materials are in the works. Northrop won the B-21 contract in 2015. The pace of activity and funding levels are increasing to enhance the facilities and prepare bases for eventual delivery of the new stealth jet.
The USAF is expected to release their 2019 budget request and synopsis of the Bomber Vector Monday. We’ll provide further updates as soon as we see the entire report.