With the A-10 Thunderbolt II having narrowly escaped the chopping block and the F-15C Eagle currently awaiting a potentially early end to its service, the Air Force's bomber fleet is next to face a series of retirements. While the older B-52 Stratofortress is currently safe, the Air Force is currently considering putting the B-1B Lancer and the B-2 Spirit out to pasture earlier than expected with the eventual advent of its next-generation B-21 Raider bomber.
The Air Force's Global Strike Command, the major command under which its bombers serve, plans on procuring between 80 to 100 of the new bomber, if not more. Earlier plans called for Global Strike Command to phase in the B-21, which would serve alongside the B-1B, the B-2, and the B-52 for years before gradually replacing them altogether.
Now, instead of simply adding the planned complement of B-21s to the existing fleet of B-1Bs, B-2s, and B-52s, the service would instead begin retiring its Lancers and Spirits by the 2030s and supersede them en masse with scores of Raiders.
The B-1B Lancer serves as America's sole supersonic strategic bomber. A marvel of engineering, the Lancer can comfortably dash at supersonic speeds at low altitudes, making it almost untouchable by enemy air defense systems. While originally designed to fulfill a nuclear strike role during the Cold War, the Lancer has since evolved into a conventional munitions "bomb truck," serving in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past twenty years in close air support roles.
A B-1B from Ellsworth AFB operating over Afghanistan in 2008 (Photo U.S. Air Force)
For all its incredible power and strategic value, however, the Lancer does come with a set of limitations. Its high operating and maintenance costs make retaining it as a long-term active bomber a very expensive and undesirable option. Additionally, it is prohibited, by treaty, from carrying cruise missiles.
Existing in a class of its own, the B-2 Spirit is an aircraft unlike any other. Born of a need to revamp America's aging Cold War bomber fleet of B-52s with a long-range deep strike aircraft that couldn't be shot down if sighted. The solution to that last requirement was to build an aircraft that couldn't be spotted at all — an all-stealth bomber that evades and defeats radar detection.
While the B-2 was highly revolutionary with its flying-wing, all-stealth design, and still remains unmatched today, the Air Force has an undeniably strong rationale behind pushing it towards retirement as well.
A B-2 Spirit taxiing at Andersen AFB, Guam. (Photo U.S. Air Force)
The B-2's operating costs are sky-high, coming in at a whopping $130,159 USD per flight hour. With just a 20-strong fleet of Spirits, this plus the fleet's unique support structure and incredible maintenance costs combine for a strong case against holding onto the B-2 for more than the next two decades.
The B-52, on the other hand, will soldier on for decades to come due to the fact that it can carry a considerably diverse combat payload, including guided "smart" munitions, and the Long Range Standoff cruise missile. Additionally, the B-52, more popularly known as the "BUFF," will soon be upgraded with newer fuel-efficient turbofan engines, which will make it even easier to maintain, cheaper to fly in the long term, and improve performance metrics.
A B-52 operating out of Minot AFB, North Dakota (Photo US Air Force)
While the B-21 and the B-2 will share a passing resemblance with their flying wing architecture, the new bomber is projected to be far more cost-effective, easier to maintain, and highly multi-role, with the ability to perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions as needed. It will also be able to carry the LRSO upon its completion and entry into service.
It should be noted, however, that nothing is set in stone. The Air Force will have to account for this proposed plan to Congress before putting it into effect, and as with the earlier A-10 retirement issues, it's all too possible that Congress could stand in the way of America's B-1B and B-2 fleets being sent to the boneyard early.