A battle for the future of the B-1 fleet

If bomber supporters can't keep the batch of B-1s the Air Force wants to decommission this year, they want guarantees they'll reap the "savings" -- and that the rest of the bombers will be protected

Here’s an update on an issue you first read about here on Buzz several months ago: The Air Force wants to begin paring back its fleet of B-1B Lancers ever so slowly, first retiring six aircraft and then eventually phasing out the Lancers as its fleet of new hyper-bombers theoretically comes online. Congressional lawmakers with B-1s based in their districts vowed to fight this plan, arguing that the B-1 is the greatest aircraft ever flown, that it’s as cheap as daylight, that taking these six out of service would leave America defenseless against world villainy — you know the drill. Now, it appears, some bomber backers are  acknowledging that if they can’t save this batch of B-1s, they want to keep the greenbacks “saved” by their retirement, and guarantee the future of the rest of the fleet.

Nick Penzenstadler of the Raid City Journal — whose hometown Ellsworth AFB, S.D. stands to lose two of the six B-1s — writes that lawmakers appear willing to accept a tactical loss here in order to secure a strategic victory:

A House version of the [defense] bill seeks to protect cuts to the combat aircraft at Ellsworth. Now, the Senate wants to ensure savings go back into the program and protect the fleet from further retirements in the next 10 years.

“A portion of the savings from this reduction would fund needed modifications and upgrades to the B-1, while the remainder would be re-invested in other U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense capabilities needed to balance war fighting capabilities across the force,” said Col. Mark Weatherington, commander at Ellsworth.

A Senate Armed Services Committee document obtained by the Journal calls for at least 60 percent of the savings to be reinvested in the U.S. military’s entire bomber fleet, of which 35 percent must specifically go back into the B-1.

Exactly how much money would be saved by the cuts is unclear, but the committee included a request to the Air Force for specifics in its budget document. Retiring two bombers at Ellsworth would equate to a loss of funding for 160 civilian and military workers at the base.

Another line in the Senate document calls for “a modernization plan for sustaining the remaining B-1 bomber aircraft through at least calendar year 2022.” That assurance seems to imply the fleet would be safe from further cuts for at least the next 10 years.

Here’s another detail:

The House version of the bill, approved May 26, stipulates that no B-1s can be retired until 2018 or until a new long-range bomber is ready, whichever comes first.

Given that no one knows much about the new bomber, the constituencies here are just obeying the old rule: A big, swing-wing bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.