As America’s secretive new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, continues development, it’s clear that the days of America’s legacy bomber platforms, the B-2 Spirit and the B-1B Lancer, are numbered. With the B-21 expected to enter into service in the mid-2020s, America’s current heavy payload stealth bombers and heavy payload supersonic bombers will begin their transition into retirement, gone the way of previous legendary aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird or the F-117 Nighthawk.
Of course, when looking toward the future, we need to be careful not to discount the present, and if you ask the Air Force, America’s only mach-capable heavy payload bomber, the B-1B Lancer, has a whole lot of fight left in it. As the B-21 program works to render the “Bone” obsolete, the Air Force has plans to inject new life into the bomber to make sure it remains a viable platform well after the B-21 takes to the skies.
There’s good reason for this seemingly two-faced approach to bomber strategy. As one part of the Air Force endeavors to replace the B-1B, another aims to keep it at the forefront of combat technologies long enough to ensure Northrop Grumman has time to produce enough B-21s to replace both fleets of bombers. With 62 operational Lancers and 20 B-2s in America’s inventory, that may take some time. The B-21 may be expected to enter combat in the mid-2020s, but chances are good that the B-1B will have to stay in the fight for at least another decade thereafter.
“Once sufficient numbers of B-21 aircraft are operational, B-1s will be incrementally retired. No exact dates have been established,” Air Force spokesperson Maj. Emily Grabowski said. “The Air Force performs routine structural inspections, tests and necessary repairs to ensure the platform remains operationally viable until sufficient numbers of B-21s are operational.”
As a result of the B-1B’s tentative retirement, the Air Force is moving forward with a significant overhaul of the platform. The aircraft will be fitted with “expanded weapons capabilities,” which is just vague enough a statement to wet the pallets of those still hoping Boeing will get the nod to mount heavy guns on the supersonic bomber. New avionics and a communications technology suite will find their way on board, the entire fleet will see a minor facelift in their engines.
Bomb rack upgrades will increase the per-munition weight the Bone is capable of sustaining in order to better leverage its massive payload capacity of over 75,000 pounds. Coupled with new targeting systems via a “targeting pod” that feeds data and video directly into the cockpit, the Lancer promises to become more lethal as it approaches the end of its service life — an unusual career progression for such an aircraft. Despite changes to the payload bay, the B-1B will likely remain a non-nuclear capable platform, per a standing agreement with the Russian government.
The Air Force did not mention the recent patent filed by Boeing to arm the B-1B Lancer with a number of different cannon possibilities ranging from 25mm to 40mm in size. Their plans included modular mounts that would use runners to lower the weapons out of the payload bay doors, and even conformal pods on the belly of the aircraft that could open to reveal weapons systems. These plans have been widely disregarded as impractical, particularly because the Lancer is slated for the boneyard but if the Air Force believes they’ll need to keep the legendary Bone in the fight for decades to come — it may not be as crazy an idea after all.
Still pretty crazy though. So, you may not want to hold your breath.
(Featured Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)