The Aging B-1 Bomber Just Won't Die

Kyle Mizokami
·2-min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • The Air Force is carefully plotting the rest of the B-1 bomber’s career.

  • The B-1, which is already more than 30 years old, is scheduled to be replaced by the B-21 Raider bomber starting in the mid- to late-2020s.

  • The Air Force is testing a retired airframe to figure out how much longer it can safely fly the B-1.

The U.S. Air Force believes its fleet of B-1 bombers can still reach their extended retirement date, but not without carefully managing the old planes.

The B-1 bomber, which the Air Force first flew in the 1980s, is long overdue for a replacement. But that won’t come until the B-21 Raider bomber—the coolest plane we've never actually seen—is ready sometime later this decade.

In the meantime, the Air Force is reducing the number of B-1 bombers and conducting tests to determine how much longer the big jets can fly.

Air Force magazine explains the service is taking several measures to ensure the B-1Bs stay airworthy, like reducing the number of bombers from 62 to 45 and shedding 17 airframes. Boeing produced the last B-1B bomber for the Air Force in 1988, and the fleet has recently suffered spare parts shortages. The retired planes will likely be cannibalized for spare parts to keep the remaining planes flying.

The Air Force is also conducting structural fatigue tests on a retired B-1 bomber wing and airframe. The B-1B was originally designed to fly for 8,000 to 10,000 miles, but the average number of hours on the bomber fleet is 12,000 miles. The Air Force wants to simulate twice that number on the retired “carcass” to get an idea of how much longer the planes can safely fly.

The B-1B fleet has suffered serious age-related readiness problems in recent years. In 2019, fewer than 10 of the 62 bombers were ready for combat. That same year, the Air Force also restricted the plane to flying at higher altitudes, in order to relieve the airframes of the stress of low-altitude flight. The Air Force is also considering adding hypersonic weapons to the variety of weapons carried by the B-1B.

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The Air Force originally designed and deployed the B-1B as a low-altitude penetrating bomber, capable of evading Soviet air defenses and attacking targets with nuclear weapons. Since the B-1 fleet lost the nuclear mission in the 1990s, it's been used as a strike and close air support platform over Iraq and Afghanistan.

The B-21 Raider, scheduled to fly this December, will replace both the B-1B and B-2 bombers.

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