It’s been a rough stretch for the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of 62 B-1B Lancer bombers.
A pair of fleet shutdowns over safety concerns and the confirmation of plans to start retiring the plane as the new B-21 comes online, even as the venerable, and much older B-52 remains in service.
But speaking at the Air Force Association’s annual conference Monday, Gen. Timothy Ray, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, seemed to throw his support behind keeping the B-1 around for quite some time. In fact, in Ray’s mind, the B-1′s capabilities might expand, Defense News reported.
Several times throughout the speech, Ray emphasized that while the B-21 is slowly spinning up, he can’t afford to lose any capability.
Indeed, Ray seemed to posture toward keeping the B-1 over the long term, according to John Venable, a senior defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former F-16 command pilot.
“One of the major takeaways [from the speech] is that the B-1 is not going to go away nearly as soon as people thought,” Venable said, “and that’s a good thing.”
Under the Air Force’s stated goal of 386 squadrons, the service’s force mix requirement is about 225 bombers. The service currently has 156, Ray said, and even with the B-21 coming online sometime in the 2020s, planned retirements to the B-1 and B-2 would keep the bomber force under 200, the report said.
Ray’s belief in the B-1 spans from two broad assessments. First, freed from the heavy workload of B-1s performing regular close-air support activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fleet will experience less wear and tear, and hence survive longer than projected.
“We’re just flying the airplane in a way we shouldn’t have been flying it, and we did for far too long. The good news is we’re resetting that entire team,” Ray said.
“What we thought was a very sizeable load of structural issues” ended up being a “fraction” of issues to deal with, he added.
Those structural issues have become particularly visible in the last 16 months, with the entire B-1 fleet grounded twice for mechanical issues. In June 2018, the fleet was grounded for two weeks following the discovery of an issue with the Lancer’s ejection seat; in March 2019, another ejection seat issue ground the fleet for almost a month.
Members of Congress have since expressed serious concerns about the B-1’s readiness rates, a number that was just more than 50% in 2018, the report said.
One military source remembers sitting around a picnic table at Edwards AFB with a group of B-1 technicians, only to hear a steady stream of complaints, including how the Lancer “didn’t do well” in sandy environments, such as the Mideast — unlike the B-52, which has now served the country well for more than half a century.
Ray expressed optimism about the mechanical issues, saying that any fallout from the ejection seat shutdowns will be completed by the end of October, which is “must faster” than the service predicted.
The second reason Ray believes there’s still life in the B-1? The idea that there are modifications to the Lancer that would add new capabilities relevant in an era of great power competition. Armed with hypersonic weapons, the B-1 would be a formidable force, in any theater of operation, at any distance, in any kind of weather.
In August, the Air Force held a demonstration of how the B-1 could be modified to incorporate four to eight new hypersonic weapons by shifting the bulkhead forward from a bomb bay on the aircraft, increasing the size inside the plane from 180 inches to 269 inches. That change allows the loading of a Conventional Rotary Launcher, the same system used inside the B-52, onto the B-1.
Overall, the internal bay could be expanded from 24 to 40 weapons, per the service. In addition, the testers proved new racks could be attached to hardpoints on the wings.
“The conversation we’re having now is how we take that bomb bay [and] put four potentially eight large hypersonic weapons on there,” Ray said.
“Certainly, the ability to put more JASSM-ER [Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range] or LRASM [Long Range Anti-Ship Missile] externally on the hardpoints as we open those up. So there’s a lot more we can do.”
Said Venable: “I think it’s a great idea. Increasing our bomber force end strength, we’re not going to get there just by buying B-21[s] and retiring the B-1s.”
However, the US Air Force has a fleet of 76 Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bombers, each powered by eight engines, which it has said it wants to keep in service until 2050.
Several companies are vying to win the contract to provide new engines for the B-52 fleet, which currently uses Pratt & Whitney TF33-PW-103 engines. As well as Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation and Pratt & Whitney hope to supply the US Air Force with the engines, which plans to have re-engined B-52s in the air by 2022.
The latter contract could be worth US$5 billion-US$7 billion, if the Air Force replaces all engines on its fleet of B-52s.
With President Donald Trump looking for any possible military savings, to finance his border wall, it’s difficult to say if the B-1 will survive or not.