By the time Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down in 1960, the United States Air Force (USAF) was already researching more effective countermeasures for surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and seeking a replacement for the aging B-52 ‘Stratofortress.’ These efforts led to the development of the more capable B-1 bomber. The design parameters took almost a decade but produced a supersonic aircraft capable of delivering a larger payload of diverse weapons both at high and low altitude. The B-1 ‘Lancer’ was equipped with a far more capable electronic warfare suite and a terrain following system which enabled high speed operations at very low altitudes, day or night, and in IMC conditions (in the weather).
Rockwell International was awarded a contract in 1970 and, by the time of its first flight four years later, the per-unit cost of the four prototypes had risen from $30 to $70 million. Jimmy Carter included the cancellation of the project (as well as the YC-14, another story) in his campaign platform. In 1977 with prototype costs exceeding $100 million per aircraft, Carter honored his promise by canceling the B-1 development.
Over the next four years, the B-1A prototypes accumulated 378 flight hours on 70 sorties. During Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, he cited the cancellation of the B-1 as an example of Carter being weak on defense. After his election, Reagan ordered the procurement of 100 B-1s (and he continued funding the project that led to the B-2). The $2.2 billion B-1B order manifested in two contracts awarded to Rockwell in January 1982. All 100 aircraft were delivered between September 1984 and May 1988.
The B-1B differed from its predecessor in several ways. The biggest impact of the changes resulted in a lower radar cross-section affecting the airflow through the engine intakes directly imposing an operational limit that drastically reduced its maximum speed at altitude from Mach 2.2 to 1.2. As the last B-1Bs rolled off the production lines in 1988, the USAF deemed the current Soviet air-defense measures to be a credible threat to the aircraft. The B-1B’s ability to ingress enemy territories at very low altitudes allowed crews the ability to mitigate many known threats by avoiding radar detection at low altitudes using terrain masking techniques.
Despite its rocky beginning, the B-1B Lancer has etched a notable role in the past thirty years. From 1986 until 1995, the Lancer remained on alert as a nuclear attack option. In 1990, a $3 billion retrofit program was launched to add conventional capabilities to the airframe. Due to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed between the USA and USSR on 31 July 1991, the nuclear role of the B-1 Bomber was eventually eliminated resulting in major structural changes to the aircraft bulkheads. The B-1 was subject to annual site visits by Russian inspectors to ensure compliance with removing the nuclear capability.
Like it’s brother, the B-2, the Lancer is an easily recognizable aircraft. The B-1 boasts a blended-wing body, cruciform tail, and variable-sweep wings. The wing-sweep ranges from 15-degrees for takeoff and moves as far aft as 67.5 degrees of sweep for high speed flight at both low and high altitude. The wing design, in tandem with the plane’s four General Electric F101 turbofan engines (with afterburners) producing a combined 120,000 pounds of thrust allow the B-1 to use shorter runways than most bombers. Those engines can propel a maximum takeoff weight 477,000 pounds (with full integrated weapons-load and fuel) over 5,000 nautical miles Initial fuel flow during the takeoff roll with maximum afterburners is an astounding 360,000 pounds per hour and after reaching cruise altitude, the B-1 burns a nominal 16,000 pounds per hour. It takes a crew of four to operate this mechanical marvel in combat, including two pilots, an offensive systems officer and a defensive systems officer.
The B-1 has had to contend with two primary issues. For starters, it’s expensive. A Lancer requires an average of 48 man-hours of maintenance for every flight hour. Its estimated cost is $63,000 per flight hour. On the other hand, that cost pales in comparison to the $72,000 or $135,000 it costs to keep a B-52 or B-2 flying, respectively. Secondly, the B-1 is built on a long airframe (146 feet). This length contributes to aircraft flexing while encountering turbulence at low altitude. Rockwell came up with an ingenious solution to the problem by fitting triangular-shaped canards near the aircraft’s nose. A Structural Mode Control System (SMCS) automatically fluctuates these canards at rates up to 200 degrees per second to dampen longitudinal oscillations. The swept-wing design in conjunction with the SMCS and its canards make the B-1B the smoothest, high-speed, low-altitude flying machine in the world. I’m sure you wish airliners had those canards!
To really get a feel for what the ‘Bone’ (a name derived by B-1 aircrew from ‘B-One’) is like, let’s hear from Merlin One Captain, Mark Hoffman:
During my 22-year Air Force career, the primary weapons system I was associated with was the B-1. As a B-1 Aircraft Commander on three combat deployments, dropping numerous weapons in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. I was also fortunate to be part of the very first B-1 combat deployment and weapons delivery. In November-December 1998 Saddam Hussein kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraq. The response of the United States was to destroy various targets of interest within Iraq using the B-1.
The speed, range and payload of the B-1 makes it a serious threat. The aircraft can carry 84x 500-pound Mk-82 bombs or 24x GBU-31 2000-pound GPS-guided bombs or 24x AGM-158 JASSM missiles (capable of standoff weapons deployment) or a combination of various weapons. In addition, the aircraft can carry an array of other weapons including cluster bomb units (CBUs).
Due to the elimination of the nuclear role, the B-1 has become a conventional workhorse for the Air Force. By utilizing both air-to-ground radar and the advanced Sniper targeting-pod coupled with the ability to program target coordinates on the fly, the B-1 is a versatile weapon system. In addition to interdiction missions, the B-1 has become a choice asset for Close Air Support (CAS) missions during which the crew communicates in close coordination with Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs) to destroy real-time threats to troops on the ground. The B-1 was a joy to fly and whether I was piloting the machine in a show-of-force, fly-by (or airshow or sporting event), a combat weapons deployment, as an instructor pilot, on a routine low-level training sortie or talking to curious spectators at an airshow, I always felt part of an incredible aircraft program the history of which is still being written.