USAF divests last of 17 B-1Bs as it prepares for B-21

US Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) has concluded the divesture of 17 Rockwell B-1B Lancer strategic supersonic bombers as the final example departed Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California, for the ‘Boneyard’ at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona, on September 23.

The withdrawal of 17 B-1Bs comes as the USAF moves to adapt and modernise its bomber force ahead of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider’s operational introduction later this decade. AFGSC first proposed to retire 17 of its 62-strong Lancer fleet in February 2020 and the plan later gained congressional approval under the US government’s Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA).

B-1B lancer
The last of 17 Rockwell B-1B Lancers to be divested by the USAF taxis by at Edwards AFB in California before departing for the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group's (AMARG's) famous 'Boneyard' at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, on September 23, 2021. USAF/Clay Cupit

Brig Gen Kenyon Bell, director of Logistics and Engineering with the AFGSC, said: “The divestiture plan was executed very smoothly. 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 now-retired B-1Bs now face a variety of different futures. One example was delivered to Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, to be used as a prototype for structural repair actions and another was flown to Edwards AFB for use as a ground test aircraft. A third went to the National Institute for Aviation Research in Wichita, Kansas, for digital mapping and a fourth was delivered to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, to be displayed at the Barksdale Global Power Museum.

The remaining 13 examples have been stored with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) in the famous ‘Boneyard’ at Davis-Monthan AFB. The majority will be placed in Type 4000 storage, but four Lancers will be stored in a reclaimable condition (Type 2000 storage), which allows them to be recalled to flight operations, if needed.

AFGSC noted that the selection of the initial 17 aircraft would be based on the structural integrity of their individual airframes, which have supported continuous combat operations for approximately two decades.

B-1B lancer
Ground crews prepare a B-1B Lancer for its final flight out of Edwards AFB on September 23. This aircraft was flown to Davis-Monthan AFB for long-term storage with the 309th AMARG. USAF/Katherine Franco

The move ensures that allocated funding and maintenance/depot-level manpower is focused on the remaining 45 B-1Bs, which are determined to be in a much healthier condition. However, this move does mark the beginning of the end for the Lancer fleet, as it will eventually be replaced by the B-21 once it enters operational service.

“Beginning to retire these legacy bombers allows us to pave the way for the B-21 Raider. 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 prioritising the health of the current fleet, including modernisation efforts, to make the bomber fleet more lethal and capable overall,” Bell concluded.

B-21 Raider digital rendering 06-07-21 [USAF]
A artist’s concept of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider flying over Edwards AFB in California. It was confirmed that five test aircraft are now being manufactured by Northrop Grumman at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, at the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on September 20, 2021. USAF

Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider is a long-range, strategic stealth bomber that has been developed for the USAF under the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) programme. Once operational, the platform will replace the AFGSC’s remaining B-1Bs, as well as the Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirit fleet.

On September 20, 2021, the USAF’s newly appointed Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, revealed that five B-21 Raider test aircraft were in production at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. The new bomber is scheduled to enter operational service in 2026/2027, with the USAF planning to acquire at least 100 examples of the type to replace its legacy bomber fleets.

In US service, the B-21 will be supplemented by the air force’s matured fleet of Boeing B-52H Stratofortress long-range heavy strategic bombers until at-least 2050. The air force anticipates that the Raider will operate alongside the B-1B and B-2A until the mid-to-late 2030s.