Discretionary Spending

Function 050 - National Defense

Reduce the Size of the Bomber Force by Retiring the B-1B

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

Billions of Dollars 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028 2019-
Change in Planned Defense Spending  
  Budget authority 0 -1.8 -1.9 -1.9 -1.9 -2.0 -2.0 -2.1 -2.1 -2.2 -7.5 -17.9
  Outlays 0 -1.1 -1.6 -1.8 -1.9 -1.9 -2.0 -2.0 -2.1 -2.1 -6.4 -16.5

This option would take effect in October 2019.
Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on cost estimates from the Air Force.


In the mid-1980s, the U.S. Air Force purchased 100 B-1B long-range bombers to serve as part of the nation's Cold War nuclear deterrent. Although the aircraft's ability to deliver nuclear weapons has been removed to comply with the terms of the original START arms control treaty, the bomber continues to be used for conventional missions. The B-1B fleet currently comprises 61 aircraft that can carry most of the types of conventional weapons in the Air Force's inventory. Although the Air Force plans to replace the B-1Bs with B-21 bombers that are under development, B-1Bs are expected to remain part of the bomber force into the 2030s.


This option would retire the entire the B-1B bomber fleet in 2020.

Effects on the Budget

This option would reduce costs by about $18 billion through 2028. Most of the savings would result from eliminating the costs for operation and maintenance of the B-1B fleet and the costs for the military personnel in the squadrons that would be inactivated under this option. (Personnel from the inactivated squadrons would be moved to other jobs in the Air Force, reducing the service's need to recruit and train new personnel.) The Congressional Budget Office estimated those savings on the basis of historical costs for the B-1B. The remaining savings would result from eliminating planned upgrades to the aircraft. Measured in terms of outlays, savings would total about $17 billion through 2028, CBO estimates. If the Air Force did not reduce the number of personnel and instead reassigned the military positions to other duties, the savings would be $4 billion lower.

A key reason that savings under this option are uncertain is that the aircraft's operating costs could rise more quickly or more slowly than CBO projects. Over its service life, the B-1B has been less reliable and costlier to operate than expected, and that trend may persist as the B-1B fleet ages. (The aircraft are at least 30 years old.) If lawmakers chose to retire only a portion of the B-1B fleet, savings would be smaller than indicated in this option. However, that reduction would not be proportionate because the Air Force would not be able to divest itself of the fixed costs associated with operating and sustaining the B-1B aircraft as long as any of them are in service.

Other Effects

One argument for this option is that other aircraft may be able to handle the missions now covered by the B-1B force. The 76 B-52H and 20 B-2A aircraft that would remain in the Air Force's inventory under this option could be used for those missions. In addition, depending on the specific circumstances of a particular mission, other systems (such as cruise missiles, attack aircraft flown from aircraft carriers, and unmanned aircraft like the MQ-9 Reaper) could substitute for B-1Bs.

One argument against this option is that it would reduce the Air Force's ability to attack targets from great distances or to have aircraft with large payloads orbiting over conflict areas awaiting orders to attack. Compared with other ground attack aircraft (such as strike fighters), bombers like the B-1B can carry substantially more weapons and can fly longer and farther without refueling. Retiring the B-1B fleet would reduce the size of the long-range bomber force by about 40 percent until the latter half of the 2020s (when B-21 bombers are expected to begin entering the force). At that time, the Air Force could decide that the smaller bomber force is adequate, or it could begin increasing the size of the bomber force with new B-21s.