Fact Over Friction: Why the Air Force Plan for the Bomber Fleet Could Change
For many years now, the Air Force has maintained that its bomber fleet size was insufficient to meet the demand of the Defense Department’s combatant commanders.
The number of bomber aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet will be decided by budget deliberations, future debates and other variables related to the threat environment. But even now, the composition of the military service’s bomber force is beginning to more fully take shape.
Currently, the B-1B Lancer aircraft and B-2 Spirit are undergoing upgrades that will allow them to have an extended lifespan. This will sustain the size of the bomber fleet until larger numbers of the B-21 Raider arrive. Eventually, the look and make-up of the future bomber force will primarily consist of seventy-six upgraded B-52 Stratofortress bombers and a yet-to-be-determined number of B-21 Raiders. It’s notable that the number 149 is regularly mentioned in discussions about the B-21 Raiders even though the success of the weapon program and its anticipated performance may lead the Air Force to increase that number.
“We are getting the B-21 and keeping in on track,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Nahom went on to express concerns about the upcoming transition into a bomber fleet comprised predominantly of B-21 Raiders and noted that “transitions are tough because resources can overlap.”
Nahom seems to suggest that there could be some friction created by efforts to produce and deploy new B-21 Raiders while simultaneously sustaining and upgrading a smaller force of B-2 Spirits and B-1B Lancers. For example, there are only twenty B-2 Spirit bombers but they are being outfitted with upgrades so that they can fly alongside the B-21 Raider for a decade or two. These bomber aircraft are already thirty years old. Meanwhile, the B-2 Lancer is almost an entirely new aircraft due to the Defensive Management System Modernization program, which improves its ability to locate enemy air defenses and evade them. Additionally, it supplies the aircraft with a computer processor that is one-thousand-fold faster among other things. The Air Force intends to ensure that there is a smooth and successful transition as it increases the number of its B-21 Raiders while upgrading the B-2 Lancers. The military service plans for the B-21 Raiders and B-2 Lancers to complement one another and offer mission support for several decades to come.
For many years now, the Air Force has maintained that its bomber fleet size was insufficient to meet the demand of the Defense Department’s combatant commanders. At several points in recent years, senior military officials have regularly referred to a “bomber deficit.” Years ago, the original plan was for the Air Force to acquire one hundred B-21 Raiders. But plans change. The speed and success of the transition program, coupled with the need for more bomber aircraft due to the global threat environment, could lead to an increase in the demand for the B-21 Raiders. Thus, it would be unsurprising if the Air Force changed that plan and increased the number of B-21 Raiders.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Image: Flickr / U.S. Air Force