In recent decades, against the background of a warming international situation, there has been a gradual reduction in the number of long-range aviation of the US Air Force. Currently, the strategic situation requires increasing quantitative and qualitative indicators. Plans have already been drawn up for the development of long-range aviation, but their implementation will be associated with a number of significant difficulties.
By the time the Cold War ended, the US Air Force had a very large fleet of long-range bombers. The Military Balance 1991 reported 277 combat aircraft. There were 4 air wings, equipped with 96 B-1B bombers. Also, the duty was carried by 10 wings on the B-52G / H in the amount of approx. 190 units Later, despite the appearance of new B-2A, the total number of equipment gradually decreased – the change in the situation and the requirements for the Air Force affected.
The current The Military Balance indicates that the US Air Force Global Strikes Command now has only 2 squadrons on stealth B-2A (20 units), 4 squadrons on B-1B (61 units) and 5 squadrons on B-52H (58 units) Of the latter, only 46 are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Several dozen cars of all models are in reserve with the possibility of returning to service.
The World Air Force handbook from Flight Global gives slightly different numbers. According to him, the number of “active” B-52H reaches 74 units, B-1B serve in the amount of 59 units, and B-2A – 19 units.
Thus, according to various sources, the US strategic aviation has 139-152 bombers of three types in 11 squadrons. Until recently, this was considered sufficient for solving the tasks of strategic nuclear deterrence.
The need for growth
The issues of updating long-range aviation for more complete compliance with the requirements of the time have been discussed for several years. Current proposals in this regard provide for the creation of new technology for a qualitative upgrade with a simultaneous increase in the number of combat bombers. At the same time, the modernization of the Air Force can face difficulties.
In September last year at the Air Force Association conference, the head of the Global Strike Command, General Timothy Ray, spoke about the current needs of the troops. According to him, a new study was carried out to assess the challenges and opportunities in the context of the development of the Air Force. The need for such a study is directly linked to the growing military power of Russia and China, which requires countermeasures.
The optimal composition of long-range aviation for the period up to 2040 was estimated at 225 aircraft of all types. It is also necessary to increase the number of combat aviation units. It is necessary to form 5 new bomber squadrons. The total number of squadrons in the Air Force should grow from the current 312 to 386.
At the same time, General Ray noted that the real capabilities of the Air Force are much more modest, and current plans do not allow getting the desired 225 combat units. So, for the next decades, it is planned to build 100 promising B-21 bombers. It will also be possible to keep 75 old B-52Hs in service, but the outdated B-1B and B-2A will be written off in the medium term. Thus, it is not yet necessary to expect that in the distant future there will be more than 170-175 aircraft in service.
For order and for cancellation
The Pentagon is currently making plans for the development of strategic aviation until the end of the thirties. Their main features are already known and allow us to imagine how the fleet of long-range bombers will look like by 2040. At the same time, some of the plans for the future have not yet been announced and, probably, have not yet been worked out.
Until the end of the period under review, it is planned to keep the old B-52H in service. These machines will undergo repairs and upgrades, which will keep them in service throughout the forties. In the near future, the long-awaited remotorization of the equipment is planned, which is expected to extend the resource and increase the flight performance. Thanks to all such measures, the B-52H will be able to continue service until 2050 or beyond.
The B-1B aircraft will be modernized in the coming years. They will receive new on-board equipment, and will also be able to carry a wider range of weapons. However, the state of this technique is poor, and they plan to abandon it. No later than 2030-35 the process of decommissioning the B-1B will begin, and by 2040 they will have completely retired from service.
The newer, stealthy B-2A has a similar future. They are planned to be repaired and modernized to extend their service life, which will continue until the end of the thirties. By 2040, two dozen stealth bombers will be written off as resource depletes.
In the middle of this decade, it is planned to put into service the promising B-21 bomber, and by 2030 the first formations will reach their initial operational readiness. To cover the needs of the Air Force, it is required to build 100 such machines with delivery in 2025-40. The new B-21s are seen as a promising replacement for the outdated B-1B and B-2A. From a certain time, such aircraft will enter the troops simultaneously with the decommissioning of obsolete samples.
Currently, according to various sources, the total number of bombers in 11 long-range aviation squadrons of the US Air Force is at the level of 140-150 units. The processes of repair, withdrawal to reserve and return to service do not have a significant impact on the overall performance; the number of subdivisions does not change.
If the recommendations of the last study are accepted, then in the next 15-20 years it will be necessary to create 5 squadrons with 70-80 new aircraft. However, the implementation of such plans, most likely, is impossible – or it will turn out to be excessively difficult and expensive.
As General T. Ray noted, by building new B-21s and upgrading the existing B-52Hs, a fleet of 175 long-range bombers could be created. The desired number of 225 units. in theory, it can be obtained by increasing purchases of new B-21s. Also, do not forget about the presence of approx. 80 B-1B and B-2A aircraft, some of which can be nominally kept in service after 2040.
However, both decisions are unlikely to suit the Pentagon and Congress. The purchase of an additional 50 B-21 aircraft will lead to excessive spending, and the retention of obsolete equipment will allow solving only quantitative problems, but not qualitative ones.
Modesty and economy
Despite all the advantages of the optimal size of the bomber fleet of 225 units, other estimates look much more realistic. Apparently, in 2040, the long-range aviation of the US Air Force will include no more than 175 aircraft – this will be a mixed fleet of the latest B-21s and, once again, modernized B-52Hs.
The lack of technology can be compensated for through the further development of aviation weapons, incl. strategic class. Now in the United States, new models of this kind are being developed, including hypersonic missiles. It can be assumed that in the distant future, American long-range aviation, equipped with only two aircraft with different characteristics and a number of modern ASPs, will represent a fairly serious force.
However, 2040 is still far enough away, and in the next two decades the Pentagon will have to solve a lot of issues. It is necessary to bring the latest B-21 bomber to production and keep its cost at an acceptable level. At the same time, it is necessary to modernize existing equipment and develop promising weapons, also in compliance with deadlines and savings. The issues of the parallel use of bombers of different classes are acquiring great importance, and therefore it is necessary to develop new strategies.
Thus, the development of long-range aviation of the US Air Force will continue and will lead to certain results. However, it seems that we will have to forget about the record quantitative and qualitative growth in order to focus on more important real tasks.