“America’s bomber force is now in crisis.”
That’s the stark warning from retired U.S. Air Force general John Michael Loh, who led the service’s Air Combat Command from 1992 to 1995.
In short, the Air Force claims it needs more bombers, but its budgets keep cutting bombers rather than adding them.
“The Air Force entered the new decade with the smallest bomber force in its history, and the [fiscal year 2021] budget request erodes it further,” Loh explained. “There comes a point where doing more with less does not work.”
The Air Force in its $170-billion budget proposal is asking Congress to let it retire early 17 of its 61 B-1 bombers and one of just 20 B-2s. The service also operates 76 B-52s.
Cutting 18 B-1s and B-2s would shrink the bomber fleet to 140 airframes at precisely the time the Air Force also says it wants to grow the bomber force to at least 200 planes.
“The number of bombers are at their lowest ever, but demand for bombers increases every year, particularly in the vast and most-stressed region of the Indo-Pacific,” Loh pointed out. “Bombers are the preferred weapon system there because of their long range and huge payload capacity.”
“In today’s global threat picture, bombers become the coin of the realm,” Loh added. “Bombers have dual strategic roles. They provide flexible deterrence with their nuclear capability, forcing adversaries to think twice before starting an attack. Bombers also carry the brunt of conventional operations.”
The new B-21 stealth bomber that Northrop Grumman is developing could fly for the first time as early as 2021, but the type won’t enter front-line service until the mid-2020s -- and then initially in small numbers.
The Air Force wants B-21s to replace the remaining B-1s and B-2s in the 2030s. The service has ruled out service-life extensions to the 1980s-vintage B-1s and ‘90s-vintage B-2s. If the bomber force does eventually grow, it’ll be through sustained production of the B-21 throughout the late 2020s and 2030s.
But cutting existing force structure in the hope of funding research-and-development and eventually buying back or adding to the same force structure “has not worked out” in the past, explained Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Virginia-based Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, warned in a December 2019 study.
Air Force Magazine summarized Gunzinger’s comments. “Each attempt [to save money by cutting forces] has left the Air Force with less hardware and people than needed to do the job,” editor John Tirpak wrote.
“Retirements of current USAF force structure are not going to yield the kind of savings … needed to build the future force,” Gunziner said.
Indeed, it’s possible operational bomber numbers could fall below 140. The Air Force expects soon to cut a multi-billion-dollar contract to begin replacing the B-52’s TF33 engines with more efficient modern motors.
As that work gets underway, engineers could discover corrosion or other problems with the 1960s-vintage B-52s, potentially compelling the Air Force to ground or even retire some of the bombers.
It’s happened before, Loh explained. “When the Air Force upgraded its C-5M fleet with new engines, the Air Force had to retire the older C-5A fleet to pay for unknown repairs.”
“Even if the B-52 re-engining goes smoothly, a significant portion of the force will be unavailable as each moves through the depot for modifications,” Loh added.
Dave Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Virginia, anticipated the current bomber dilemma in November 2019 article in Forbes. He advised the Air Force to hang on to every existing bomber that it possibly can do.
“The B-21 promises to be a very advanced and capable aircraft and the Air Force should procure them in ample numbers as rapidly as possible,” Deptula wrote. “However, until the day comes that the B-21 is fully mission-capable in sufficient numbers to meet the needs of the national defense strategy, the legacy bomber force will have to answer the call to fly and fight.”
“Investing in sustaining the viability of these proven aircraft is not an option, it is an imperative,” Deptula wrote.
Congress ultimately decides whether the Air Force cuts aircraft. Lawmakers could deny the Air Force’s request to retire the B-1s and B-2.