NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — It’s been a rough stretch for the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of 62 B-1B Lancer bombers, with a pair of fleet shutdowns over safety concerns and the confirmation of plans to start retiring the plane as the new B-21 comes online, even as the much older B-52 remains in service.
But speaking at the Air Force Association’s annual conference Monday, Gen. Timothy Ray, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, seemed to throw his support behind keeping the B-1 around for quite some time. In fact, in Ray’s mind, the B-1′s capabilities might expand.
Several times throughout the speech, Ray emphasized that while the B-21 is slowly spinning up, he can’t afford to lose any capability. Indeed, Ray seemed to posture toward keeping the B-1 over the long term, according to John Venable, a senior defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former F-16 command pilot.
“One of the major takeaways [from the speech] is that the B-1 is not going to go away nearly as soon as people thought,” Venable said, “and that’s a good thing.”
Under the Air Force’s stated goal of 386 squadrons, the service’s force mix requirement is about 225 bombers. The service currently has 156, Ray said, and even with the B-21 coming online sometime in the 2020s, planned retirements to the B-1 and B-2 would keep the bomber force under 200.
Ray’s belief in the B-1 spans from two broad assessments. First, freed from the heavy workload of B-1s performing regular close-air support activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fleet will experience less wear and tear, and hence survive longer than projected.
“We’re just flying the airplane in a way we shouldn’t have been flying it, and we did for far too long. The good news is we’re resetting that entire team,” Ray said.
“What we thought was a very sizable load of structural issues” ended up being a “fraction” of issues to deal with, he added.
Those structural issues have become particularly visible in the last 16 months, with the entire B-1 fleet grounded twice for mechanical issues. In June 2018, the fleet was grounded for two weeks following the discovery of an issue with the Lancer’s ejection seat; in March 2019, another ejection seat issue grounded the fleet for almost a month. Members of Congress have since expressed serious concerns about the B-1’s readiness rates, a number that was just more than 50 percent in 2018.
Ray expressed optimism about the mechanical issues, saying that any fallout from the ejection seat shutdowns will be completed by the end of October, which is “must faster” than the service predicted.
The second reason Ray believes there’s still life in the B-1? The idea that there are modifications to the Lancer that would add new capabilities relevant in an era of great power competition.
In August, the Air Force held a demonstration of how the B-1 could be modified to incorporate four to eight new hypersonic weapons by shifting the bulkhead forward from a bomb bay on the aircraft, increasing the size inside the plane from 180 inches to 269 inches. That change allows the loading of a Conventional Rotary Launcher, the same system used inside the B-52, onto the B-1.
According to an Air Force release, first reported by Military.com, the bulkhead change is temporary, giving the B-1 flexibility based on its mission. Overall, the internal bay could be expanded from 24 to 40 weapons, per the service. In addition, the testers proved new racks could be attached to hardpoints on the wings.
“The conversation we’re having now is how we take that bomb bay [and] put four potentially eight large hypersonic weapons on there,” Ray said. “Certainly, the ability to put more JASSM-ER [Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range] or LRASM [Long Range Anti-Ship Missile] externally on the hardpoints as we open those up. So there’s a lot more we can do.”
Said Venable: “I think it’s a great idea. Increasing our bomber force end strength, we’re not going to get there just by buying B-21[s] and retiring the B-1s.”
“Adding a new rotary [launcher that] he was talking about, just behind the bulkhead of the cockpit of the B-1, freeing up the pylons to actually manifest more longer-range weapons and give it a greater penetrating strike capability — those are great takeaways from this particular event,” the analyst added.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.