The U.S. Air Force plans to retire its fleet of Rockwell B-1B and Northrop Grumman B-2 stealth bombers in a “Bomber Vector” roadmap that will be laid out in the coming weeks.
As Northrop’s next-generation B-21 “Raider” comes online in the mid 2020s, the Air Force wants to phase out the nuclear-capable B-2 and conventional B-1, according to two sources with knowledge of the budget discussions.
In its budget blueprint for fiscal 2019, the Air Force also will invest heavily in multi-domain command and control, defense of space assets, and buy a number of OA-X light attack aircraft for low-end warfighting, the sources said.  The President’s budget request for fiscal 2019 will be unveiled officially on Feb. 12.
In addition, the service will kill an effort to replace Northrop’s E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-Stars) surveillance and battle management fleet, and planned production rates of the F-35A will remain steady.
All of these efforts are subject to approval by Congress, and lawmakers likely will fight hard to keep the J-Stars re-cap effort alive.
There is no immediate plan to retire the Vietnam-era B-52 Stratofortress, the backbone of the Air Force’s bomber fleet, the sources said. The Air Force has spent more than half a century installing various avionics and weapons systems upgrades on the B-52, which came online in 1960 and 1961, allowing the aircraft to remain a critical contributor to the modern battlefield.
Most recently, the B-52 squadron fighting Islamic State terrorists in the Middle East received a key upgrade of the aircraft’s internal weapons bay, adding a conventional rotary launcher (CRL) that allows the bomber to drop eight additional smart bombs. The Air Force already has put this capability to use in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
Lawmakers recently have moved to bolster support for re-engining the B-52, which is currently powered by eight original Pratt & Whitney TF33-103 turbofan engines that are not sustainable beyond 2030. New engines would add range, reduce fuel burn and boost power generation.
At the same time, the addition of the next-generation, nuclear-tipped Long Range StandOff (LRSO) missile, which is planned to replace the Boeing AM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile, will keep the B-52 relevant well into the century.
The new bomber roadmap is likely budget-driven, even as the Pentagon is set to receive its biggest funding hike in decades. Although the B-2 is decades younger than the B-52, the Air Force only has 20 of the newer bomber in the active force, and they are much costlier to operate.
“The point is, if they have an equivalent or better, stealthier plane in larger numbers, you get out from under the sustainment costs [of the B-2],” one source said. “It makes perfect sense.”
The Air Force has said it wants 100 B-21s, and a total force of 175 bombers.
Meanwhile, as the threat increases, the B-1 is no longer a penetrating bomber, the source said. The B-1 is labor-intensive to maintain and prohibited by treaty from carrying nuclear weapons.
“The B-1s have been on the chopping block as long as the new bomber has been in the air force plan,” said Rebecca Grant of IRIS Independent Research.
Another advantage of retiring the B-2s and B-1s is that it simplifies management and logistics—instead of having three types of bombers, the Air Force will have just two large fleets.