Initial planning has begun for the retirement of the B-1 and B-2 bombers, but the game plan depends largely on progress in fielding the B-21 Raider—and on Congress—the Air Force’s bomber program executive officer said.
“The approach we’re taking” on the road to a two-bomber force for Air Force Global Strike Command is “maintaining our current capability and readiness in terms of our near-peer adversary” as the B-21 ramps up, said Col. (Brig. Gen. select) William S. Rogers in a recent interview.
“At this point the team’s really focused on maintaining that readiness, availability, survivability, and operational capability” for the B-1 and B-2 “while we get ready for the B-21 fielding.”
In an Air Force bomber roadmap from 2018, the service planned to retire the B-1 and B-2 in the 2031-2032 timeframe, but USAF has not updated those plans publicly since. Long-term, AFGSC plans to field “at least 100” B-21s and 75 B-52s.
The Rapid Capabilities Office, which manages development of the B-21, is taking an “events-based approach” to fielding the new aircraft, so hard plans for the B-1 and B-2 departures are not yet possible, Rogers said. The “divestiture planning” is “looking at what makes sense, if there are any … unplanned delays on the B-21. Or if things just change.” He noted that “Congress gets a say in our divestiture plans, but at this point, we’re looking at multiple … avenues, to make sure the Air Force has the flexibility needed” and to provide as many options as possible for the Secretary of Defense and the President.
Both the B-1 and B-2 suffer from “vanishing vendor” issues, and the PEO shop, part of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, is “working with the primes on parts obsolescence,” Rogers said. During the pandemic, “there’s been instances where subs [subcontractors] went out of business, so … We engage with the primes and the Air Force Sustainment Center” looking for form, fit, and function replacements “that may be out there” as well as identifying new vendors and possible vendors. If the Air Force has the rights to parts, “we’ll work with the Rapid Sustainment Office to see if there’re any innovative ways to solve some of those problems.”
The B-1 and B-2 are doing well in terms of aircraft availability rates—the preferred metric over mission capability rates—and are hitting their goals, Rogers said. For the B-1, aircraft availability is 42 percent; for the B-2, it’s 55 percent.
The B-1 saw a surge in aircraft availability last year, when 17 airplanes retired from the fleet, but USAF left the number of maintainers at the previous level, meaning more maintainers were available for each airplane. Spare parts from 12 of the 17 aircraft also helped improve the B-1’s availability, which had suffered greatly from exhausting use in the Middle East over the last 20 years.
Results of a B-1B carcass physical teardown as well as a fatigue test on another carcass and the creation of a “digital twin” of the airplane are expected to yield benefits in availability over the long term, as the Air Force moves toward a predictive maintenance model.
Early discussions have taken place about what to do with the B-2 after it’s retired. Due to its sensitive and secret materials, if the aircraft are to be stored, they will need a special climate-controlled and secure facility for that purpose. The bomber PEO shop is watching to see what the Air Force decides to do with the 33 F-22s the service plans to retire, if it is permitted to do so. Whatever approach is taken with those aircraft will likely set the model for B-2 storage, Rogers said.
The fate of the B-2s will “ultimately depend on higher-level decisions of the Air Force,” he said. A decision on long-lead military construction funds will depend on whether the aircraft will be stored intact or scrapped. A MILCON decision “assumes we’re building facilities to store intact, full aircraft. That decision hasn’t been made, yet,” Rogers said.
“It’s still event-driven, depending on the numbers of B-21s we need out there, also weighed against the threat … Against the peer competition,” he said.
Asked if the B-2 will be used in testing the B-21, Rogers said that, too, remains to be seen.
“We’ll try to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and if there’s ways to reduce risk on B-21, we’ll certainly talk to and coordinate with the B-21 program and Global Strike Command” about using the B-2 in such a role. Typically, the Air Force has two B-2s available for test purposes at any given time.
The B-1 and B-2 have largely completed their modernization programs, but Rogers said the term “modernization through sustainment” summarizes the approach to be taken, which means software updates will take an open approach to make improvements easy to add. AFGSC may yet need improved communications in “a highly contested environment” or advanced weapons.
“Any upgrades [or] mods are really focused on keeping it viable and operationally relevant as needed, until the Air Force makes final decisions on divestiture,” Rogers noted. Major upgrades of aircraft destined for mid-term retirement aren’t affordable right now, so the goal is to only make “wise choices” for inexpensive improvements that can add significant capability “without a lot of development.”
For the B-2, the only new weapon in process is the B61-12 nuclear bomb. There is “not currently a requirement” to outfit the B-2 with capabilities to direct numbers of collaborative combat aircraft—uncrewed, re-usable or “attritable” air vehicles likely to make up a big part of the 2030s USAF force structure.
For the B-1, however, new weapons are likely, but Rogers couldn’t give details due to classification.
“Anything additional at this time is classified and early in planning … At this point, I can’t discuss it,” he said. However, AGFSC has said it plans to fit the B-1 and B-52 with hypersonic weapons. Both aircraft will carry the weapons externally, and the B-1 will carry the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) on external hardpoints once used for nuclear cruise missiles, when that aircraft had a nuclear mission.
The first B-52s equipped with the new Rolls-Royce engines, under the Commercial Engine Replacement Program, will be ready for testing in a few years, Rogers said. Asked why the Air Force can’t go faster with the CERP—which was initially planned to be a quick replacement with off-the-shelf powerplants—Rogers said “there’s more to it” than that.
To go with the new engines, “there’s new nacelles, flight controls being changed and upgraded, new throttle systems going into the aircraft, displays, and other things,” each of which are interconnected and which depend on each other’s success.
He said the B-52 CERP is a far more complicated program “compared to the C-5 re-engining,” which took more than a decade.
The AFLCMC is working with AFGSC to determine the rate at which B-52s will re-enter the force after receiving the CERP, as well as a radar upgrade and other changes.
“All these [changes] have training and mission support type impacts, but it is the goal to try to feed them in a logical, smaller batch into the fleet versus having large batches” all at once, Rogers said. In smaller batches, the upgraded B-52s will generate some experience and teach AFLCMC what it will need with regards to spare parts, for example, he said.
Overall, the bomber PEO shop is “doing all we can on the acquisition side to support the Air Force’s position and plan for a two-bomber force. And it’s our job to give the Secretary of the Air Force, the DOD, and the country … from a bomber standpoint, the flexibility to defeat China. We take that role seriously,” Rogers said.