Planning for B-21 Raider, Air Force retires 17 B-1B Lancers

The U.S. Air Force continues to make plans for the future B-21 Raider stealth bomber.

As part of the planning, the Air Force Global Strike Command concluded its divestiture of 17 B-1B bombers Sept. 23, 2021, as the last aircraft departed Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to fly to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

The divestiture of the aircraft is in support of the United States Air Force’s efforts to modernize America’s bomber fleet, as authorized by the National Defense Authorization Act.

“The divesture plan was executed very smoothly,” Brig. Gen. Kenyon Bell, AFGSC Director of Logistics and Engineering, said. “With fewer aircraft in the B-1 fleet, maintainers will be able to give more time and attention to each aircraft remaining in the fleet.”

The 17 B-1B aircraft were retired from a fleet of 62, leaving 45 in the active inventory. Out of the 17 retired, one aircraft went to Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., as a prototype for structural repair actions.

One went to Edwards AFB as a ground tester. One went to Wichita, Kansas, at the National Institute for Aviation Research for digital mapping, and one went to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., as a static display for the Barksdale Global Power museum.

The remaining 13 aircraft will be stored at the Boneyard at the 309th AMARG in Type 4000 storage. Four of those will remain in a reclaimable condition that is consistent with Type 2000 recallable storage.

The retirement of the aircraft did not affect the service’s lethality or any associated maintenance manpower, and allowed officials to focus maintenance and depot-level manpower on the remaining aircraft, increasing readiness and paving the way to for bomber fleet modernization to meet future challenges.

“Beginning to retire these legacy bombers allows us to pave the way for the B-21 Raider,” Bell said. “Continuous operations over the last 20 years have taken a toll on our B-1B fleet, and the aircraft we retired would have taken between 10 and 30 million dollars per aircraft to get back to a status quo fleet in the short term until the B-21 comes online.”

By retiring these aircraft now, AFGSC can focus on prioritizing the health of the current fleet, including modernization efforts, to make the bomber fleet more lethal and capable overall, Bell added.

The Air Force needs to transition from three bombers to two ó a rebuilt B-52 and next-generation B-21 ó to deter both established and rising powers. This change is vital to future Joint and Allied operations, because no other service or partner nation provides long-range bomber capability.

The B-1B was built by Rockwell International, now Boeing North American, at its Palmdale, Calif., facility.

The B-1A was initially developed in the 1970s as a replacement for the B-52. Four prototypes of this long-range, high speed (Mach 2.2) strategic bomber were developed and tested in the mid-1970s, but the program was canceled in 1977 before going into production. Flight testing continued through 1981.

The B-1B is an improved variant initiated by the Reagan administration in 1981. Major changes included and additional structure to increase payload by 74,000 pounds, an improved radar and reduction of the radar cross section by an order of magnitude. The inlet was extensively modified as part of this RCS reduction, necessitating a reduction in maximum speed to Mach 1.2.

The first production B-1 flew in October 1984, and the first B-1B was delivered to Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, in June 1985. Initial operational capability was achieved on Oct. 1, 1986. The final B-1B was delivered May 2, 1988.

The United States eliminated the nuclear mission for the B-1 in 1994. Even though the Air Force expended no further funding to maintain nuclear capabilities, the B-1 was still considered a heavy bomber equipped for nuclear armament until 2007. The conversion to conventional only began in November 2007 under the original START treaty and was completed in March 2011 under the New START treaty. To make that conversion possible, two steps were taken:

During the first step a metal cylindrical sleeve was welded into the aft attachment point of each set of B-1 pylon attachments. This prevented installing B-1 Air Launched Cruise Missile pylons.

During the second step two nuclear armament-unique cable connectors in each of the B-1 weapons bays were removed. This prevented the pre-arm signal from reaching the weapons.

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