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U.S. Air Force May Retire B-1B Lancer To Free Funds For New B-21 Raider

Boeing B-1B Lancer, serial # 86-0098, wearing 'Midnight Train' nose-art leads a trio of aircraft at the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul Training Center Jan. 17, 2019, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. MROTC is a facility used for heavy aircraft maintenance in a public/private partnership between the Air Force and Boeing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)
Boeing B-1B Lancer, serial # 86-0098, wearing ‘Midnight Train’ nose-art leads a trio of aircraft at the Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul Training Center Jan. 17, 2019, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)

According to Flight Global, US Air Force (USAF) may retire a portion of its Boeing B-1B Lancer fleet in order to free funds for B-21 Raider.

The B-1 is a highly versatile, multi-mission weapon system. The B-1B’s blended wing/body configuration, variable-geometry wings and turbofan afterburning engines, combine to provide long-range, maneuverability and high speed while enhancing survivability.

For the past 18 years, the B-1B Lancer has seen combat and has been referred to as a workhorse. Subsequently, years of deployed operations in the Middle East and Afganistan left their mark on the state of the entire fleet of aircraft.

Now, New B-21 Raider American heavy bomber under development by Northrop Grumman. As part of the Long-Range Strike Bomber program (LRS-B), it is to be a very long-range, stealth strategic bomber for the United States Air Force capable of delivering conventional and thermonuclear weapons.

The bomber is expected to enter service by 2025. It is to complement existing Rockwell B-1 Lancer, Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber fleets in U.S. service and eventually replace these bombers.

U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer Fleet Is In Serious Trouble: Out of 62 Less Than 10 Bombers are Ready for Action
A B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress perform a flyover during the 2017 Barksdale AFB air show, May 6, 2017

“The story of the B-1 is that we designed an aircraft to fly low altitude, high-speed, supersonic to penetrate enemy defences and take out targets,” says David Goldfein, chief of the staff of the USAF.

“For the last 18 years, we’ve flown it at medium altitude, very slow, wings forward. We flew the B-1 in the least optimal configuration for all these years. And, the result of that is we put stresses on the aircraft that we did not anticipate. When it goes into depot we’re seeing significant structural issues with the B-1.”

Boeing is analyzing the structure of the B-1B for the USAF, but no conclusions have been reached yet, says USAF Materials Command’s General Arnold Bunch. However, preliminary results appear to have the service thinking that the Cold War-era supersonic bomber would be too expensive to maintain.

Cirium fleets data indicate that USAF has 61 in-service B-1Bs with an average age of 32 years.

Boeing B-1B Lancer, serial # 86-0098, wearing 'Midnight Train' nose-art leads a trio of aircraft at the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul Training Center Jan. 17, 2019, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. MROTC is a facility used for heavy aircraft maintenance in a public/private partnership between the Air Force and Boeing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)
wo U.S. Air Force 7th Bomb Wing B-1B Lancers, perform air refueling training with a 92nd Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, Aug. 13, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Lawrence Sena)

“The discussion we’re having is there are some number of B-1s that would be so cost-prohibitive to be able to get back to a code one status and that we should retire those,” says Goldfein. “Then, flow that money into doing some key things within the bomber portfolio.”

Key considerations are pushing money towards moving up the delivery date of the B-21 as well as buying more examples of the next-generation stealth bomber.

“I will tell you that the 100 B-21 requirement, as a minimum, there are a number of analyses that have been done that indicate that we need more than that [quantity],” says Goldfein. “And, I’m 100% in lockstep with those analyses.”

Thus far, the B-21 is on schedule and the service is pleased with Northrop Grumman’s work, says Goldfein. The aircraft is scheduled to first fly in December 2021.

Goldfein lauded Northrop Grumman’s performance in the programme but expressed uncertainty about accelerating production when deliveries commence: “I don’t know that we’re going to be able to accelerate in time [of delivery]. I’m hoping we can accelerate in numbers.”

To counter growing threats from adversarial regimes in China and Russia, the US military needs to rearrange it priorities, says Goldfein.

“We’re always looking at trades between capability, capacity and readiness,” he says. “It’s the iron triangle.”

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