The US Air Force (USAF) may retire a portion of its Boeing B-1B Lancer fleet in order to repurpose overhaul dollars for the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, re-engining of the Boeing B-52 and “long-range strategic weapons.”
“The story of the B-1 is that we designed an aircraft to fly low altitude, high-speed, supersonic to penetrate enemy defences and take out targets,” says David Goldfein, chief of the staff of the USAF.
The B-1B was designed to fly fast and low, not slow at medium altitudes.
“For the last 18 years, we've flown it at medium altitude, very slow, wings forward. We flew the B-1 in the least optimal configuration for all these years. And, the result of that is we put stresses on the aircraft that we did not anticipate. When it goes into depot we're seeing significant structural issues with the B-1.”
Boeing is analyzing the structure of the B-1B for the USAF, but no conclusions have been reached yet, says USAF Materials Command’s General Arnold Bunch. However, preliminary results appear to have the service thinking that the Cold War-era supersonic bomber would be too expensive to maintain.
Cirium fleets data indicate that USAF has 61 in-service B-1Bs with an average age of 32 years.
“The discussion we're having is there are some number of B-1s that would be so cost prohibitive to be able to get back to a code one status and that we should retire those,” says Goldfein. “Then, flow that money into doing some key things within the bomber portfolio.”
Key considerations are pushing money towards moving up the delivery date of the B-21 as well as buying more examples of the next-generation stealth bomber.
“I will tell you that the 100 B-21 requirement, as a minimum, there are a number of analyses that have been done that indicate that we need more than that [quantity],” says Goldfein. “And, I'm 100% in lockstep with those analyses.”
Thus far, the B-21 is on schedule and the service is pleased with Northrop Grumman’s work, says Goldfein. The aircraft is scheduled to first fly in December 2021.
Goldfein lauded Northrop Grumman’s performance in the programme, but expressed uncertainty about accelerating production when deliveries commence: “I don't know that we're going to be able to accelerate in time [of delivery]. I'm hoping we can accelerate in numbers.”
To counter growing threats from adversarial regimes in China and Russia, the US military needs to rearrange it priorities, says Goldfein.
“We're always looking at trades between capability, capacity and readiness,” he says. “It’s the iron triangle.”