By Jen DiMascio
Senators last week approved an amendment that blocks the Pentagon's plan to reduce the number of B-52 bombers in its fleet.
The Pentagon has been trying to reduce its bomber fleet for years to save money to modernize remaining bombers. The Defense Department position was articulated in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which directed the fleet cut to 56 aircraft to pay for upgrades to remaining B-52s, B-1s and B-2s.
Congress has opposed that reduction in prior years, saying that a reduction in the number of B-52s would limit the nation's ability to respond to global threats. Last year, lawmakers limited the number of retirements that could take place to 18 in the year, which would lower the size of the fleet to 76. The law also stipulated the Air Force should maintain that fleet size until a replacement bomber was available.
But Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who represents the state where B-52s are housed at Minot AFB, said last week on the Senate floor that the Pentagon is trying to skirt that language by adding to the assignments of aircraft used for training and mothballing other aircraft.
As a result, Conrad and senators from North Dakota and Louisiana sponsored an amendment requiring a fleet of at least 76 B-52s that would receive upgrades.
"This amendment requires that the 76 aircraft B-52 force include 63 active aircraft, 11 backup aircraft and two reserve aircraft, just as it did in 2006. It will prohibit the Pentagon from reducing the maintenance status of some B-52s and creating 'hangar queens' that are not regularly flown," Conrad said in a floor speech.
Both versions of the defense authorization bill already support upgrading 76 B-52s, and the House version already expresses concerns about plans to reduce the size of the fleet.
"The committee also understands that the current B-52 combat coded force structure of 44 is insufficient to meet combatant commander requirements for conventional long-range strike if there is a need to conduct near simultaneous operations in two major regional conflicts," the House bill said. "The committee believes it is premature to retire any B-52 aircraft prior to a replacement long-range strike aircraft reaching initial operational capability status."