New hypersonic missiles could save the U.S. Air Force’s ailing force of B-1 Lancer heavy bombers from a possible early retirement.
After decades of hard use, the B-1s are in poor material condition and badly in need of upgrades. Modification programs and extensive depot maintenance have tied up many of the swing-wing bombers. Others are idle while awaiting spare parts.
Just seven of the 62 B-1 bombers were fully mission-capable in July 2019, South Dakota senator Mike Rounds revealed. The low readiness rate -- one of the lowest across the Air Force’s fleet -- has weighed on the service’s plans for its bomber force.
The Air Force is developing the new B-21 stealth bomber as a replacement for the B-1s as well as for the flying branch’s 20 B-2s. The Air Force is upgrading 76 B-52 bombers for service alongside the B-21.
The service hopes to acquire at least 100 B-21s starting in the mid-2020s. If, as widely expected, the Pentagon approves an expansion of the bomber force, the Air Force either would have to buy more B-21s or hold on to existing B-1s and B-2s.
At present, the plan is for the B-1s gradually to leave service starting in the 2020s. “Once sufficient numbers of B-21 aircraft are operational, B-1s will be incrementally retired,” said Maj. Emily Grabowski, an Air Force spokesperson. “No exact dates have been established.”
But the advent of new Mach-5 “hypersonic” munitions could motivate the Air Force to keep B-1s a few years longer, Aaron Mehta reported for Defense News. “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,” Mehta wrote. “In fact, in Ray’s mind, the B-1′s capabilities might expand.”