Progress on B-21 Means Current Bombers Need a Fast Retirement

The Air Force needs to move quickly as it brings on the B-21 and modernizes the B-52, because operating four bombers at a time is not sustainable. This means the venerable B-1s and B-2s need to head to the boneyard for retirement ASAP, the service’s top planner said.

The secretive, next-generation B-21 Raider is being built right now and will be flown in the “not-too-distant future,” said Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, the deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, during a July 14 AFA Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event. When that happens, the Air Force will be flying the B-1, B-2, B-52, and B-21 simultaneously.

“That 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 we get ourselves to that two-bomber fleet, which is a B-21 and a modernized B-52.”

Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, speaks with retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, on July 14.

In the near term, B-52s are undergoing significant modernization, including re-engining, upgraded avionics, and a new “digital backbone,” Nahom said. B-52s will leave service to receive the upgrades, making fewer bomber available for tasking.

“We’re going to have a deficit in availability while those airplanes are being modified,” he said. “That is my biggest concern on the bomber fleet … over the next, I’ll call it, five to seven years as we bring on the B-21 and then just beyond that when we start bringing out the B-1s and B-2s. I think this is the critical time,” Nahom said.

The Air Force eventually wants to grow to a fleet of 220 bombers. As the B-21 comes online, the service will begin sending B-1s and B-2s to the boneyard.

The Air Force expects the first B-21 to roll out of the factory and make its first flight in 2022, when it heads to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for testing. The first of 17 B-1s planned for retirement already flew to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., as the service prepares to draw down that fleet to 45 aircraft, split about evenly between its two operating bases: Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., and Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.