The U.S. Air Force is preparing to start mothballing the B-2 Spirit and B-1B Lancer fleets in preparation for the next-generation stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, according to Aviation Week. The nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bomber and conventional B-1B supersonic bomber fleets will ultimately be retired to free up funds to support the B-21 program, which is expected to field the first aircraft in the mid-2020s.
The preparations to retire B-2s and B-1Bs will be officially released February 12 in the White House’s budget request for fiscal year 2019. Congress has ultimate power to control spending, so the budget request will be subject to legislative approval.
The Air Force ultimately plans to purchase a fleet of 100 B-21s with a total price tag of $80 billion for the jets and supporting equipment. Little is currently known about the new bomber’s design other than the fact that it will feature the latest stealth technologies and be optimized to penetrate deep into enemy territory undetected. A concept image of the Raider released in early 2016 shows a similar design to the B-2, suggesting the new bomber will be an upgraded B-2 design that “allows for the use of mature systems and existing technology,” according to an Air Force statement.
While the Air Force plans to retire B-2s and B-1Bs to free up funds for the B-21 Raider, the service has different plans for its oldest bomber, the B-52 Stratofortress. The Air Force wants to outfit its fleet of B-52H bombers with new engines to improve range, fuel economy, and on-aircraft power generation. The large B-52 bombers, which can carry both conventional and nuclear missiles, are also to be outfitted with the Long Range StandOff (LRSO) missile, a stealthy nuclear cruise missile that would keep the B-52 relevant for decades to come.
In addition to reigning in B-2 and B-1B spending in preparation for the B-21 Raider, the 2019 budget request includes increased spending for Air Force space defense and funds to purchase of the first OA-X light attack aircraft—a cheaper alternative to the A-10 Warthog for close air support (CAS) in low- or medium-threat conflicts.
Congress has ultimate say over the budget, and often reigns in Air Force plans to retire currently fighting aircraft in favor of new designs. Still, the request to prepare for B-2 and B-1B retirement suggests the B-21 Raider is on the horizon.