U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer Fleet Is In Serious Trouble: Out of 62 Less Than 10 Bombers are Ready for Action

According to Air Force Times, The state of the U.S. Air Force’s B-1B Lancer fleet is bad — really bad — and lawmakers on the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee want the service to come up with a plan to fix the problem.

The U.S. Air Force’s fleet of B-1B bombers is undergoing a readiness crisis that has resulted in less than ten of 62 bombers capable of carrying out missions.

The low readiness rating is almost certainly the worst among the U.S. military’s combat aircraft and reduces the overall number of bombers by almost a third.

The United States’ long-range strike capabilities “may be placed at increased risk by aging structural problems with the B-1,” according to the panel’s markup of HR 2500, the House’s version of the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill, released Monday. The Lancer isn’t getting the resources and attention necessary to improve its mission-capable rates.

The situation has gotten so bad, according to the subcommittee, that the number of B-1 aircraft that are fully mission-capable is now only in the single digits. What’s more, B-1 aircrew are being rerouted from flying the bomber to other aircraft, because there aren’t enough Lancers for their necessary training.

A number of issues are likely involved. The B-1B fleet is reportedly not receiving the “resources and attention necessary” to keep the fleet going.

The last bomber was produced 31 years ago, and as planes grow older they grow more expensive and difficult to repair. One problem, in particular, is that the bombers reportedly suffer from structural issues.

Another issue is the high tempo of operations in the post 9/11 period. The heavy strategic bomber became a close air support favourite in the skies over Afghanistan, with its ability to dash to support troops in contact, stay aloft for hours on end, and drop bombs with precision.

The proposed authorization bill would require the Air Force to brief the House Armed Services Committee by March 1, 2020, on its plan to improve B-1 readiness. That plan should address: how the Air Force expects to fix the bomber’s structural issues; its plans to continue analyzing and testing structural deficiency data; repair timelines, and strategies to mitigate these problems in the future.

The subcommittee also wants the Air Force to produce a training plan for pilots and maintainers, and a recovery timeline to meet the B-1′s future deployment requirements. The subcommittee’s requirements must still be approved by the full House and Senate.

The B-1 fleet has been grounded twice in the past year over concerns with its ejection seats. In late March, Global Strike Command grounded the bombers for nearly a month due to problems with its drogue chute system, which corrects the seat’s angle to allow an airman to safely eject from the bomber.

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-1B with a brake fire after a hard landing at Rhein-Main AB, Germany, June 1994.

The B-1B is one of three heavy bombers in the U.S. Air Force. Among the three types—B-1B Lancer, B-52H Stratofortress, and B-2 Spirit—the B-1B is the only non-nuclear capable bomber.

The Air Force is supposed to have 157 bombers in operation, but the B-1B readiness problems take at least 52 bombers out of that total. The readiness rate for the B-52H and B-2 is unknown.

The B-1s are falling apart at precisely the same time the Air Force is trying to grow the bomber fleet.

The Air Force possesses 158 bombers in nine front-line squadrons. The fleet includes 20 B-2s, 62 B-1s and 76 B-52s.

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 B-1B is now focused on conventional missions, including long-range strike and maritime missions against enemy ships. B-1B bombers took part in the April 2018 strike on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, launching several Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missiles at regime targets. The B-1B will be replaced in the late 2020s by the upcoming B-21 Raider bomber.

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