WASHINGTON – Less than half of the bombers President Donald Trump would rely upon to be “locked and loaded” against North Korea could launch today if needed, according to the latest Air Force figures available.
That’s not a surprise to the bomb squadrons who have seen firsthand the combined effects of aircraft age, the demand of 15 years of air war operations and reduced budgets. But the numbers can be stark. Of the nation’s 75 conventional and nuclear B-52s, only about 33 are ready to fly at any given time, according to Air Force statistics. Of the 62 conventional B-1s, only about 25 are ready. With the 20 nuclear B-2 stealth bombers, the number drops further. Seven or eight bombers are available, according to the Air Force.
“On a nominal basis you don’t have more than single digits of B-2s available to do anything,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, currently the dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace.
“If anything good comes out of the North Korea crisis,” it should be a wake-up call, he said.
“It’s not just the nation’s bomber force,” that is so stretched, Deptula said. “It’s the military writ large. The U.S. Air Force is the smallest and least ready it’s ever been in history – that should get people’s attention.”
Despite the reduced numbers, the bombers can still meet the president’s call if needed, said Col. Robert Lepper, chief of the combat aircraft division at Air Force Global Strike Command.
“All three of our bomber fleets are capable of meeting their missions – they’ve always dealt with reduced bombers,” Lepper said. “Specifically with the B-2 fleet – we make decisions every day how to best utilize the aircraft … and meet the requirements that are there for us in that given day.”
The B-2’s primary mission is nuclear deterrence. It made a rare conventional run against Islamic State forces in Libya in January. But the B-2 is largely held back from a conventional role; otherwise there would not be enough available aircraft to keep its pilots fully trained and not enough fully ready bombers to meet national security requirements.
Overall, there are 20 B-2s in the Air Force arsenal. While the B-2 is the youngest bomber in service, it is still a 21-year-old airframe, and it’s undergoing modernization. At any given time, two are in programmed depot maintenance and another two are in long-term modernization overhaul, leaving a fleet of 16. At least one B-2 is dedicated to research and testing, Col. Michael Lawrence, chief of the Air Force’s maintenance division, said in an interview this spring.
But even fewer than that - only 38 percent on average, meaning seven or eight of the 20 B-2s - are available at any given time, both Lawrence and Lepper said. Worse, the Air Force reports that on average, only 51 percent of those available aircraft are mission capable.
Three B-2s deployed to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam in 2016, but there are limited facilities there to support their advanced maintenance needs. In other shows of force to North Korea, the bombers have deployed from their home at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
“There’s one specific hangar that can meet all the B-2 needs” at Guam, Lepper said. “But they have to share.”
There are 62 remaining B-1 bombers, and like the B-2 they also require modernization. About six are undergoing programmed depot maintenance at any given time – long-term overhauls that take the aircraft offline. Another six or so are unavailable because of the Air Force’s upgrade program, where each of the now 30-year-old airframes will eventually get modern cockpit features to improve the B-1’s situational awareness, communications and network capabilities, Lawrence said.
The depot time means the Air Force on average has about 50 available B-1s. According to the fiscal year 2016 numbers, the latest statistics available, 51.6 percent of the available B-1s are mission capable. Those statistics align with what the B-1 fleet has experienced for the last several years.
The nation’s B-1s are split between Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, and are easier to deploy overseas than the B-2.
The defense of Guam and South Korea is now partially in the hands of six Ellsworth B-1s and 350 airmen from the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron who rotated to Andersen in late July. They relieved Dyess’ departing 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, according to the Air Force.
Those six forward deployed B-1s will “face a large number of the same problems that we face at home,” Lepper said, including demand for spare parts, scheduled maintenance and unscheduled maintenance.
However, forward-deployed B-1s are sent with “a robust maintenance team and have the top priority for parts across the Air Force,” Lepper said.
The Dyess unit that just returned from Guam was able to maintain a 74 percent mission capable rate during the six months it was overseas, Lepper said.
The oldest bomber in the fleet, the B-52, actually has the highest mission capable rates of all three bombers. Over the last several years 60 percent of the B-52s have been available to fly, meaning about 45 airframes. Those B-52s are an average 54 years old apiece, yet the fleet was also reporting 74 percent mission capable rate.
The B-52 has a conventional and nuclear role. To meet the requirements of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) non-proliferation treaty, the Air Force began converting 29 of its remaining B-52s in 2015 to a conventional-only role, and finished that process in 2017, the Air Force said in a statement. The remaining B-52 fleet still can support both a conventional and nuclear role.
The B-52s higher rate of mission capability is the result of an extensive overhaul the aircraft went through over the last several years and the fact that there were previously hundreds of B-52s, so there are plenty of spare parts remaining, Lepper said.
Despite the challenges facing all three airframes, Lepper was confident.
“The bomber fleet is ready,” he said.
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.