ANALYSIS: Hypersonic missiles may save B-1B

WHILE SENIOR USAF officials consider divesting B-1Bs in favour of more B-21s, an experiment by the service’s 412th Test Wing (TW) may point to a reprieve for the bomber.

On August 28, the 412th TW’s 419th Flight Test Squadron (FLTS), Air Force Global Strike Command and industry partners held an ‘expanded carriage’ demonstration with the B-1B at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

The demonstration showcased the potential of increasing the Lancer’s weapons capacity to integrate future advanced weapons. The two possible programmes – external carriage and long bay options – would allow the B-1B to carry weapons externally, significantly increasing its magazine capacity for munitions, as well as adding larger, heavier munitions, such as hypersonic weapons.

USAF B-1B and Qatari Mirage 2000-5 [USAF/ Staff Sgt Clayton Cupit]
A USAF B-1B and a Qatari Mirage 2000-5 fly in formation during Joint Air Defense Exercise 19-01, last February. The relentless pace of operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan has taken its toll on B-1 serviceability. USAF/ Staff Sgt Clayton Cupit

Conventional weapons could ultimately be carried on six of the eight existing external hardpoints, which have never been employed operationally. This will boost the Lancer’s ‘magazine capacity’ from the 24 weapons now carried internally to up to 40. The demonstration also included a notional hypersonic missile mock-up attached to a B-52H-style Conventional Rotary Launcher.

The development is timely, since the B-1B has been looking increasingly vulnerable as the USAF aims to rationalise its bomber fleet. USAF Chief of Staff General David Goldfein told reporters on September 17 that the Lancer is suffering from significant structural issues primarily due to having been used in its least optimal configuration – flying at medium altitude and very slow speeds and with wings forward during years of combat over Afghanistan and the Middle East. The service has been examining retiring a portion of the fleet to instead invest in more B-21s, long-range strategic precision weapons or the B-52 re-engining programme. Those aircraft that would be prohibitively expensive to return to fully operational status would be withdrawn. However, the potential of the ‘expanded carriage’ demonstration could yet save the B-1, previously expected to remain in service until 2040.