Air Force Global Strike Command is looking to boost its number of bomber aircraft through 2040 and incorporate a number of new weapon systems on the fleet, even as dozens of current bombers may be retired by 2036.
The service’s fiscal year 2021 presidential budget request included plans to cut 17 B-1B Lancer aircraft from the fleet and leave 44 in operation, before retiring the whole fleet by 2036. The Air Force plans to cut back on its aging B-1Bs as well as the B-2 Spirit bombers as the new B-21 Raider aircraft come off the production line later this decade.
Service officials have previously stated plans to maintain between 165 and 175 bombers once the B-21 – in development by Northrop Grumman [NOC] – comes online. But Air Force Global Strike Command Commander Gen. Timothy Ray is pushing for “north of 220” aircraft in the bomber fleet, and sees multiple paths to getting to that number over the next five years.
“In the past, we’ve said it was 175, but that was a programmatically derived approach,” Ray said in an April 9 media teleconference hosted by the Defense Writers Group. “Right now, the short-term [path] includes working our way through sustaining the B-1 and adding the capacity to it until we have the B-21s coming off, [and] just sustain the B-2 until the B-21 is coming off the line at the numbers we need.”
Ray noted that the ongoing modernization efforts for the B-52 Stratofortress bomber will also contribute to his goal of at least 220 bombers. “And then you want to look for those opportunities to add capacity where you can,” he added.
AFGSC is focused on increasing its long-range strike capabilities, a requirement laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, he added. The Air Force’s 419th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, has been conducting test in the past year on the B-1B to see how it can handle new ordnance, such as hypersonic weapons.
Air Force Magazine first reported Ray saying earlier this week that the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), currently in development by Lockheed Martin [LMT], could fill that role. Among new conventional weapons that could go on the Lancer is the future nuclear-armed Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon being built by Raytheon [RTN] and Lockheed Martin. The Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-Off Missiles-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), have also previously been placed on the B-1.
Ray said Thursday that he sees an opportunity for the B-1 Lancer to take on the hypersonic mission more quickly, and plans are in the works to configure the aircraft’s external hard points to carry up to six ARRW weapons. “Then you still have the bomb bay where you can carry the LRSO or JASSM-ER,” he added.
He added that Global Strike Command currently has more mission-ready B-1B aircraft and crews than the command has seen in “many, many years.”
“I look at … at least 25 flyable airplanes a day,” he said, adding that crews have recently flown a higher monthly sortie rate than was seen over the past three to four years. “That recovery effort is yielding the results and then some.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that Air Force Global Strike Command is considering arming the B-1 Lancer with future hypersonic weapons such as ARRW, as well as forthcoming conventional weapons such as LRSO.