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A USAF B-1B Lancer takes off from Andersen AFB, Guam, on Jan. 11, 2018. Air Force photo by A1C Gerald R. Willis.

The Air Force is considering reducing the B-1 bomber fleet and using the savings to pay for a range of bomber fleet improvements, including a speed-up in the pace of B-21 bomber buys, and more long-range weapons, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told reporters Sept. 17, giving a limited peek ahead at the fiscal 2021 budget request. He said he could not “lean forward” with many details because the budget is not yet approved.

“Bomber aviation is in high demand” given the China threat, the long distances of operating over the Pacific, and the fact no other ally has a bomber fleet, Goldfein told reporters at a press conference for AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. There have been “a number of studies” that more bombers—particularly the new B-21—are needed, and Goldfein said “I’m 100 percent in lockstep with that.” Bottom line, Goldfein said, in bombers as well as other categories: “We need to grow.”

The B-1 fleet was hard used in the Middle East for the last 18 years; often the aircraft of choice in Afghanistan because it could loiter, carry a big payload, and quickly get “where we needed it to go” to come to the aid of troops in contact, Goldfein said.

But flying the B-1 in this way—slow, medium altitude, wings forward, instead of its design concept of fast, low-altitude penetration with wings swept back—has worn the B-1 fleet down, Goldfein said.

“We put stresses on the aircraft that we did not anticipate,” he said, and in depot, “we’re seeing significant structural issues with the B-1.” The Air Force leadership is reviewing whether it would be “cost prohibitive” to restore the existing fleet to “code one” status, meaning that it is ready to go and not hobbled by various technical issues.

Gen. Arnold Bunch, head of Air Force Materiel Command, later told reporters that a structural stress test of the B-1, which was started several years ago, was halted as various serious issues popped up requiring maintenance alerts to the fleet. That testing has resumed, Bunch said, but he couldn’t say when a final answer on the B-1’s likely service life might be available.

Goldfein said USAF leaders are exploring whether to retire some of the most stressed B-1s “and then flow that money into doing some key things within the bomber portfolio.” Those would include “long-range strategic precision weapons; B-52 re-engining—which not only keeps the B-52 viable, it also decreases our tanker requirement and can I buy B-21s faster,” Goldfein said.

While he doubted that the B-21 development program could be sped up, “I’m hoping we can accelerate in numbers,” meaning buy the bomber more rapidly than is now planned, to build mass more rapidly, Goldfein said. The Air Force has said the B-21 is slated to start entering series production in “the mid-2020s” and deliver through around 2032. If only 100 are bought, that would translate to a buy rate of about 10-15 per year, or about the same rate as the KC-46 tanker.

Global Strike Command chief Gen. Timothy Ray said Monday he believes a force of 225 bombers is the minimum needed to carry out the National Defense Strategy.

Goldfein said the B-21 is the best-performing program on the books.

“Of all the programs we’re tracking…the B-21, in terms of the performance of the contractor, is at the very top of the list in terms of what I’m seeing out of the production,” Goldfein said. Northrop Grumman is developing the B-21.