Over the next decade, the U.S. Air Force wants to start necking down to a bomber force of two fleets–76 re-engined and upgraded Boeing [BA] B-52s and at least 100 Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raiders.
“We’ve got to get to a two bomber fleet as quickly as possible,” Air Force Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the service’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation virtual forum on July 14. In prepared testimony to Congress last month, Nahom laid out a total bomber force of 225, including the 76 upgraded B-52s and 149 B-21s.
A four bomber fleet of Boeing B-1B Lancers and B-52s and Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirits and B-21s “is not affordable,” Nahom said. “The B-1 and B-2, as phenomenal as they are, we’ve got to get those out of service, as the B-21 comes on, and get ourselves to that two bomber fleet–the B-21 and a modernized B-52.”
B-52 modernization includes the Commercial Engine Replacement Program, a radar modernization program, and upgrades to the aircraft’s communications backbone. In addition, the Air Force envisions new strike capabilities for the Buff–as the B-52 is popularly known–including the carriage of hypersonic missiles and the Long-Range Standoff cruise missile.
“We’re going to have a deficit in availability, while those airplanes are being modified,” Nahom said of the B-52s. “That is my biggest concern on the bomber fleet is over the next, I’ll call it five to seven years, as we bring on the B-21 and just beyond that, as we start bringing out the B-1s and the B-2s, eventually. I think this is the critical time. Do we want to grow to that 220? Absolutely, but I’ll tell you right now we’ve got to get through these next five to seven years very smartly, and then I would say out to about 10 years, when you start seeing the B-1s and B-2s start hitting the boneyard, as we bring on this modernized, two bomber fleet.”
Early this year, Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) briefed congressional defense authorizers on the Air Force bomber roadmap, which laid out a requirement for more than 220 bombers (Defense Daily, Feb. 25).
The fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act allowed the Air Force to cut 17 B-1Bs from the fleet to meet the goal of 45. The service plans to retire the fleet by 2036. Nahom’s remarks on July 13 suggest that that retirement may come sooner.
The Air Force also has planned to cut its B-2s as the B-21 Raiders come off the line later this decade.
While the Air Force’s 2018 bomber roadmap had put forth a goal for 175, AFGSC has pushed for “north of 220” aircraft in the bomber fleet through a number of paths to reach that number over the next five years (Defense Daily, Apr. 9, 2020).
Section 1333 of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act required the secretary of the Air Force to submit by Feb. 1 this year “a report with recommendations for the bomber aircraft force structure that enables the Air Force to meet the requirements of its long-range strike mission under the National Defense Strategy.”
The report was to include a plan and a date for meeting an established minimum number of bomber aircraft, as well as the minimum number of primary mission aircraft, the penetrating bomber force structure necessary to meet the requirements of the long-range strike mission of the Air Force in contested or denied environments under the National Defense Strategy, including the total minimum number of penetrating bomber aircraft and the minimum number of primary mission penetrating bomber aircraft.
The Air Force has said that the report is classified and declined to release it.