NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force will be ready to present its “bomber roadmap“ to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis this fall, but one thing is already certain: Bases that have bombers now will retain that capability, even as older platforms like the B-1B Lancer retire.
“Based on the infrastructure required to support a bomber force, it’s highly likely that if you’ve got a bomber at your base, you’re going to have a bomber at your base,” Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein told Defense News in a Sept. 18 interview at the Air Force Association’s annual conference.
“We’re the service that actually projects power from our bases, they are actually part of our weapon system. So, the investment that we’ve made in places like Whiteman [Air Force Base, in Missouri] and other places that have bombers, we’re going to sustain that investment going forward.”
Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, has taken the lead on the bomber roadmap that will detail the service’s plans to modernize the bomber force, including future capabilities like the B-21 Raider and the eventual retirements of the B-1 and B-52.
The Air Force will brief Mattis on the roadmap sometime over the next few months, but until the defense secretary determines it is in line with the administration’s defense strategy and signs off on the plan, no decisions will be made on the future of the B-52, B-1, B-2 and B-21, Goldfein said.
Goldfein said that as the review has progressed, it has become c lear that the B-52 — the oldest bomber in the Air Force, dating from the 1950s — remains a viable capability in terms of its expansive range and payload.
“What can I do with this platform if it’s actually a node in a network? Are there actually things I can put in that bomb bay that haven’t been invented yet?” Goldfein asked.
“When I look at the capabilities of what a bomber aircraft does in terms of the range it can fly, the persistence over the battlespace it provides and the payload it can bring, it brings all kinds of new, different ways of using that going forward. So it’s beyond a bomber discussion. It’s actually beyond a platform discussion. This is about an agile network.”
If the B-1 Lancers are retired first, that could mean bases like Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota could be among the first to receive the B-21 Raider. The service has kept information about the newest bomber’s progress under lock and key, but Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson reiterated Monday that the program has remained on track since last year’s preliminary design review.
A key part of the bomber roadmap has been service leaders’ extensive consultations with Congress about potential plans of action.
“It’s an inclusive dialogue that we’re having,” Goldfein said. “It’s really important to distinguish between that which the nation needs and that which the Air Force can afford, because there’s a difference there. What we’re talking to Congress about is this combination of, ‘Hey, here’s what the national military strategy says what we need, and here’s what we think is a way forward in terms of what may very well be the topline that we have to work with,’ So then we build the best Air Force that we can.”
Should the Air Force decide to retain the B-52 through the 2050s, as leaders have said will likely be the case, it will also have to make a decision on whether to replace the aircraft’s TF33 engines built by Pratt & Whitney.
Last week, Rolls-Royce announced that it would likely offer its BR-725 engine if the Air Force moves forward with a TF33 replacement. To sweeten the deal, it would also build an assembly line somewhere in the United States to put together and test those engines and others in the F130 family.
Pratt & Whitney has promoted a TF33 upgrade that it says would decrease fuel consumption by 10 percent and improve sustainment costs.
“We can also offer a brand new commercial, off-the-shelf engine,” said Matthew Bromberg, president of the company’s military engines business. For that, it would likely offer an eight-engine configuration of the PW800. However, he noted that the TF33 upgrade would be more cost effective because it would require fewer modifications.
“You go to the PW800, everything has to change,” he told Defense News Monday. “The accessories have to change, the pylons have to change. All of the connections to the air system have to change. … The avionics and flight controls have to change.”