For B-1s and B-2s, Fending Off Retirement in Reserves Would Be Pricey

FILE -- A B-1B Lancer is parked on the flightline at Royal Air Force Fairford, United Kingdom, June 9, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Curt Beach)
FILE -- A B-1B Lancer is parked on the flightline at Royal Air Force Fairford, United Kingdom, June 9, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Curt Beach)

Recent news of plans to retire the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit bomber fleets as the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber comes online has sparked speculation in aviation communities about whether the bombers can keep flying beyond their prospective retirement dates.

But some experts say it may be a drag to keep them around, even for the next decade.

"The Air Force can't get the 'Bones' to the boneyard fast enough because the maintenance costs of just keeping them flying are ruinous," one defense analyst in Washington, D.C, said.

"The [Air Force] plans to spend as much money on B-1s as on B-2s and B-52s over the next five years, but while that is for improvements on the B-2 and B-52, it's just to fix the basic problems keeping B-1s on the ground," the source told on background.

That may not stop some officials from exploring if they can stave off the bombers' retirement by pushing the Bone, Spirit or both into the Reserve.

During a House Armed Services Committee on Air Force readiness last week, Rep Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) asked Air Force officials, if they could comment on any plans by the Air Force Reserve to absorb legacy bombers.

Maj. Gen. Derek Rydholm, deputy to the chief of Air Force Reserve, replied that the program has been successful with B-52Hs under 307th Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. The 131st Bomb Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard also operates the only nuclear-capable Guard bomb wing with B-2 missions.

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"As far as the B-1 is concerned, our association there at Dyess [Air Force Base] is fairly small," he said.

The Air Force in 2015 reactivated the 489th Bomb Group as an Air Force Reserve unit -- the only one of its kind to operate B-1s at the Texas base.

"The footprint is working well for us, and there's talk of expansion there," Rydholm said.

The general quickly noted, however, that if every base that currently has B-1s or B-2s is expected to get B-21s, he hoped the Reserve would also benefit in that transition.

"Our expectation would be that if we are currently associating in the B-1 at Dyess and the choice is made to divest that aircraft in order to invest in the B-21, that we would invest with our active-duty partners in that same airframe," he said.

It's an expensive proposition.

"Planes cost money to fly, whether they are in the reserves or in the mainline force," Richard Aboulafia, vice president and analyst at the Teal Group, told

"The differential isn't all that great," he added.

Redesignating B-1s or B-2s, "would cost no less in the reserve component" than it would on the active side in terms of maintenance and flight hours, the defense analyst added.

The numbers

Flying the non-nuclear B-1 costs $82,777 per flight hour, according to published 2016 operational costs for Air Force aircraft. The B-2 costs $121,866 per flight hour, while the B-52 is the least expensive, at $68,186 per flight hour.

Meanwhile, readiness in the bomber fleet has taken a nosedive in recent years.

According to Fiscal 2016 numbers, the mission-capable rate for the B-1B is 51.62 percent, and the B-2 mission-capable rate is 51.11 percent. The mission-capable rate measures how aircraft platforms can fly or perform their range of capabilities.

The B-52 long-range bomber, by contrast, does marginally better with a mission-capable rate of 73.92 percent. But there's also more of the B-52 to go around.

Even though the average age of the Cold War-era bomber is roughly 54 years for the total aircraft inventory, there are 76 Stratofortresses as opposed to 62 B-1s or just 20 B-2s, according to the Air Force Association's Air Force 2017 almanac.

On average, "B-52s have high [mission capable] rates because they're not being used very much," the first defense analyst said. This is despite the nuclear-capable B-52's operations in the Middle East over the last two years in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its increasing strike capacity against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

High operational tempo, the effects of sequestration and general maintenance needs have worn all the bombers in some way.

"A lot of B-2s are unavailable because they're undergoing modernization. With a fleet of 20, it only takes one or two in depot to make a significant hit on MC rates," the defense analyst said.

Could pilots be absorbed?

There could be one strategic advantage to having Reserve bomber units: pilot and aircrew absorption.

"We fly at the same rate as the active-duty, so our combat mission readiness requirements are the same," said Col. Michael Brian McClanahan, commander of the 489th Bomb Group at Dyess, the sole B-1 Reserve unit in the Air Force.

McClanahan pointed out the investment the Air Force makes in a person, not just an airframe.

In order to get someone fully mission qualified in a bomber, it takes years, he said. And while he and his airmen will be long gone by the time the B-21 begins its initial missions, the idea of a Reserve unit to offset other bomber operations with part-time airmen makes sense.

"We spent lots of time training them, they've had multiple deployments; it takes a long time and a lot of money to get someone up to that speed," McClanahan said during an interview.. sat down with a variety of leaders from Air Force Global Strike Command's 7th Bomb Wing on Dec. 18 during a trip to the base, and took a ride in the B-1B over training ranges in New Mexico.

Retaining bomber pilots is a challenge for the Air Force. And while the Reserve airmen stay busy, they only deploy half the time as their active-duty counterparts.

"The 9th Bomb Squadron has 12 crews and we have an additional 6 crews, so when a deployment comes ... normally four of my crews will go," McClanahan said, adding it would be two crews for the first part of the deployment, two in the second leg.

Sixty percent of the unit is made up of traditional, part-time Reserve members, working "90 percent of the time" as civilians, McClanahan said. In all, the 489th has 16 pilots and 15 weapons system operators, he said.

Echoing officials such as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, McClanahan said the Air Force is steadily growing, but remains smallest it has been since its inception. But what that means for the future is a mystery.

If the Air Force finds a need for a Reserve bomber unit, it will stand toe-to-toe with its active-duty counterparts doing the same missions in hopes of trying to relieve some of the operational pressure, McClanahan said.

Pilot retention "would be better if there were more Reserve units out there" in the bomber community, he said.

"If we can just keep that investment, that's a cost-saving measure," McClanahan added.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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