Head of Global Strike Command Wants to Make Air Force Bombers Even More Lethal

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A B-1B Lancer taxis on the flight line at Ellsworth Air Force Base.
A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 28th Bomb Wing taxis on the flight line at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., March 23, 2020 after completing a training mission. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Jette Carr)

With planned cuts and retirements coming to the U.S. Air Force's bomber inventory, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command wants to make the remaining aircraft even more lethal in the future.

The Air Force plans to have a total of 165 to 175 bombers in its inventory once the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber comes online.

Gen. Timothy Ray has advocated for a larger fleet -- roughly 220 -- but until the B-21 Raider enters service in the latter part of the 2020s or early 2030s, he wants to make sure the current bomber fleets have the capability to carry a bigger variety of loads.

There are opportunities to keep some airframes, such as the B-1B Lancer, relevant by "increasing our long-range strike," Ray said during a phone call hosted by the Defense Writers Group.

In August, the Air Force showed that the B-1 fleet may have more options, after it proved it can transform the Lancer to hold more ordnance, a first step toward it carrying hypersonic weapons payloads.

A test by the 419th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, demonstrated how crews could fasten new racks onto the B-1's external hardpoints and reconfigure its internal bomb bays to hold heavier weapons.

Related: America's Non-Nuclear Bomber Could Someday Carry Hypersonic Weapons

Earlier this week, Ray told Air Force Magazine what weapons would make sense for this role: the hypersonic Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW, pronounced "Arrow"), currently under rapid prototype development; and a conventional version of the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, or LRSO (which is meant to be a nuclear cruise missile, replacing the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile for other aircraft that still carry nuclear weapons, such as the B-52 Stratofortress).

B-1 bomb bays are already snug for conventional weapons, and hypersonic weapons -- which would travel at speeds of Mach 5 or higher -- would take up more space due to the complexity of their propulsion design.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Ray said he thinks the non-nuclear B-1 fleet, which has been in recovery mode since 2018 after years of constant deployments, may be able to take ARRW on faster.

He separately told Air Force Magazine, "I think our carriage capability is good for that."

And while there's no requirement to create a conventional version of LRSO, Ray said it's the range he's interested in. "I think that's going to be a very, very good missile," he told the magazine.

To date, its range has not been specified; its predecessor AGM-86B can fly "1,500-plus miles," according to the Air Force.

Officials have already employed other missiles on the aircraft, such as the Joint Air to Surface Stand-Off Missiles-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), as well as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM. A single B-1B can carry up to 24 LRASMs; the missile achieved early operational capability on the bomber in 2018.

"Basically, the configuration we're seeking is external hardpoints that can allow us to add six ARRWs, and then you still have the bomb bay where you can carry the LRASM or the JASSM-ER," Ray said Thursday. LRASM or JASSM-ER could also be carried externally, he added.

"Our investments will be to improve the external carriage, and make sure that we have a good sustainment gameplan," he said.

Does that mean AFGC is poised to one day reconfigure a bomber to be the "arsenal plane?"

In November, Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the service may select one of its bombers -- the B-52, B-1 or B-2 Spirit -- to be used as an arsenal plane, or a heavy, multifunctional, munitions-packed aircraft.

But Ray on Thursday said he thinks the arsenal plane will be born out of a "clean sheet design," not necessarily using a bomber airframe or a cargo plane, both ideas put forth in recent years.

The Air Force is slated to cut 17 Lancers in the latest fiscal 2021 budget proposal, reducing the fleet to just 44; the service plans to retire the fleet by 2036.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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