Things are looking up for the U.S. Air Force’s beleaguered B-1 bomber fleet, Air Force Global Strike Command chief Gen. Timothy Ray said.
Readiness is improving. More crews are training. And the nearly four-decade-old swing-wing bomber could get a new, Mach-five missile that could help it to defeat Chinese and Russian air-defenses.
But Ray’s good news belies the bad news. The Air Force still wants to retire 17 of the 62 B-1s in order, it claims, to divert maintenance and modernization resources to the B-1s that are in the best structural condition.
“I have a very positive recovery for the B-1 community,” Ray told Air Force Magazine. “I have more flyable airplanes and ready crews than we’ve seen in many years.”
Combined, the flying branch’s two B-1 wings -- the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota -- recently have generated “at least 25 flyable airplanes a day,” Ray said.
That’s “more sorties in a month than we’ve seen in the last three or four years.” Ray said Ellsworth flew 100 B-1 sorties in March 2020.
The higher pace of flights results in more crews getting the training they need to be combat-ready. “I’m sitting on a significantly larger number of mission-ready crews,” Ray said.
Contrast the recent improvements with the condition of the B-1 fleet just one year ago. In July 2019 just seven B-1s were fully mission-capable, South Dakota senator Mike Rounds revealed.
Fifteen of the swing-wing B-1s at the time were in depots for maintenance. Thirty-nine aircraft were down for inspections, Rounds said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
B-1s for many years flew from bases in the Middle East for long-endurance close-air-support missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.
Round-the-clock operations took a toll on the bombers. The Air Force twice in 2018 and 2019 grounded the B-1 fleet following mechanical failures.
“We were just beating the heck out of them, deploying them, deploying them,” Hyten said of the B-1s in response to Rounds’ comment. “We had to pull back a little and get after fixing those issues. The depots can do that if they have stable funding.”
A dearth of flyable B-1s has compelled the Air Force to transfer aircrew to other types, according to Air Force, citing a Senate subcommittee report.
“The committee is concerned B-1 readiness does not have the priority and resources to improve B-1 mission-capable rates,” the report states, according to Cohen. “This is evidenced by fully mission-capable aircraft currently in single digits and aircrew being rerouted from flying the B-1 to other aircraft due to lack of B-1 aircraft for training.”
At the nadir of B-1 readiness in 2019, the Air Force acted quickly to accelerate repairs to the complex planes while also pulling the bombers back from front-line deployments. B-2 and B-52 bombers filled in for the B-1s.
But the most dramatic effort to boost B-1 readiness also was the most controversial. The Air Force in its 2021 budget proposal asked Congress to let it retire the 17 worst-off B-1s. The service committed to keeping intact both bomb wings flying the B-1, but the wings would split 45 bombers instead of 62.
Lawmakers have yet to take up the proposal.
Ray also has touted plans to arm around 18 of the 45 B-1s he wants to keep with a new hypersonic missile. Traveling faster than five times the speed of sound, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon could help B-1 crews strike heavily-defended targets.