B-1B: global firepower


B-1B Lancers on the flight line during sunset at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
TSgt Ted Nichols/US Air Force

The US Air Force’s 62 operational (of 67) Rockwell B-1B Lancers have the greatest capability of all its current bombers designed to deliver precision-guided conventional weapons. The B-1B’s speed, endurance and communications capabilities allow it to be integrated effectively into strike packages and missions.

The B-1B is a development of the B-1A, originally designed as a replacement for the B-52, but was cancelled in 1977. Revived as the B-1B in 1981, it was rushed into production designed for the nuclear deterrent mission, more specifically to penetrate Soviet air space and strike assigned targets. It first entered service in 1985, but never really recovered from corner-cutting of capability during its development, capability needed to achieve its mission. However, the B-1B remains a remarkable improvement over the B-1A, adding 74,000lb (33,565kg) of usable payload, improved radar and reduced radar cross-section, with a speed of Mach 1.2.

The end of the Cold War allowed B-1Bs to be used for conventional missions; the type chalked its first combat against Iraq during Operation Desert Fox in 1998. Recent combat employment has been over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The one-time nuclear bomber has proven to be a remarkably effective close air support (CAS) aircraft, providing air cover for troops in contact even when fighters and attack aircraft have had to break off to refuel.

Speaking at a briefing in Washington on May 23, 2017, Major General Scott Vander Hamm said: “My experience in CAS comes from the bomber, using the B-1B’s ability to loiter and carry a diverse payload …Flying armed over watch of night convoys in Afghanistan, with a [Sniper] pod, I spent a lot of time in a 45-degree right bank. The B-1B had a presence in Afghanistan. You could hear us at night, even if you couldn’t see us.”

The B-1Bs will be replaced as the B-21 Raider enters service, but, as Global Strike Command’s commander General Timothy Ray said at the Air Force Association symposium in Washington DC on September 17: “It will be the mid-2030s before the last B-1B retires.” This makes the task of keeping them operationally viable for a further 15-plus years a priority.

Speaking at the event the following day, retired Lieutenant General David Deptula expressed concern that once an aircraft is labelled for retirement, modernisation dollars dry up.

The decision to replace the B-1B with the B-21 was based on cost and vulnerability.

To keep the B-1B beyond the mid-2030s – its airframe life permits it to serve to 2040 without having to undergo a service life extension programme – it would require an upgrade of its defensive systems and restricting it to delivering Stand off weapons.

The B-1B’s operating cost ($83,000 in FY2016 dollars per flight hour) may appear high, but when this figure is divided by the number of weapons it can deliver or the hours it can spend over a battlefield, the bomber can be considered cost-effective compared to the cost of delivering the same number of weapons or maintaining the same continuous air presence using fighters (which cost between $19,000 and $24,000 per hour, depending on the type, and require frequent trips to an expensive tanker to refuel). The B-1B may prove to be a bargain in its old age.


To sustain the B-1B into the 2030s, General Ray said he will ensure that all modifications and upgrades, will be affordable and delivered on time: “We have to look at each modification, what we are trying to do to get good connectivity to bring targeting from the battlefield to aircraft, with its mission prioritisation shifting from CAS to the highend fight.”

The B-1B was selected as one of two aircraft types that will lead the Air Force’s initiative for using more data analytics to increase availability. The type will rely on some 100 algorithms, developed at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, using detailed aircraft status reporting to predict which problems each aircraft may encounter, allowing these to be addressed proactively, preferably during depot-level maintenance, without the need for expensive fleet-wide modifications. According to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, this approach is saving $600 million and increasing availability.

The B-1B’s sensor suite provides allweather targeting and situational awareness.

The Northrop Grumman APQ-164 radar units fitted to all 67 B-1Bs have synthetic aperture radar capabilities, upgraded as part of the Reliability and Maintainability Improvement Program. As part of the aircraft’s latest targeting capability, Lockheed Martin’s AAQ- 33 Sniper XR Advanced Targeting Pod has been in operational since 2008.

One modification currently in production is the Integrated Battle Station (IBS) and Sustainment Block 16 programme, which started in 2012.findividual aircraft are upgraded as they enter scheduled depotlevel maintenance with the Oklahoma Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base. The programme should be completed in 2019.

Each IBS has two large multifunction displays (MFDs) with digital flight instruments and colour moving map capability. The weapons system officer workstation has five colour MFDs. New cockpit instrumentation includes a vertical situation displays upgrade, along with new keyboards and controllers. A central integrated test system connects all instrumentation and mission systems. Avionics have been upgraded to permit operation in controlled airspace, and flight simulators are being upgraded to reflect changes on the aircraft.

The fully integrated data link (FIDL) is being installed as part of the Block 16 upgrade building on the capabilities of the Rockwell Collins Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Joint Tactical Radio System, which connects the B-1B to Link 16 networks. FIDL allows the B-1B to send and receive text messages, imagery, mission assignments and targeting information. Major General Scott Vander Hamm said Link 16 will be the basis of the data link for the B-1B’s future.

One of the problems with the B-1B aircraft has been the Weber ACES II ejection seat system, which is due to be replaced by new ejection seats starting in mid-2019. Problems encountered with the current seat led to a fleet-wide safety standdown between June 7 and 19 following an emergency landing at Midland airport, Texas on May 1.

B-1B Lancers assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron fly alongside Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-2s over the vicinity of the East China Sea on October 21, 2017.
Japan Air Self-Defense Force

Dyess-based B-1B, radio call sign Hawk 91, flying in a two-ship mission, experienced a potentially catastrophic engine failure.

The second aircraft, Hawk 92, stayed close to the crippled bomber. Air traffic control responded to the initial mayday call asking: “Is that an actual emergency?” Fire warnings went off in three places in the aircraft.

Flames were visible. The pilot gave the order to eject.

During a briefing in Washington on June 19, Heather Wilson described what happened next: “You don’t eject from the B-1 all at once. One crewmember goes out before the other, so there’s a sequence so you don’t hit a buddy on the way out …So the first crewmember pulled the handle to eject. The cover came off above the ejection seat, but nothing else happened.

The seat did not fire. Within two seconds of knowing what had happened, the aircraft commander said: ‘Cease ejection. We’ll try to land.’ That did two things. First, one airman was sitting on an ejection seat after he’s pulled the fire pins. He sat there for the next 25 minutes.

It’s like pulling out the pin on a grenade and holding it as you come in to land, not knowing whether turbulence is going to cause you to launch. The second is the courage it took and the valour represented by the aircraft commander who decided to try for all of them to make it, rather than sacrifice the one guy who can’t get out.”

The Air Force awarded all four crew members – pilot, co-pilot, offensive and defensive mission systems operators – the Distinguished Flying Cross. A fleet-wide ejection seat modification programme followed. Ray said on September 17 that the programme was “doing pretty well”, pending delivery of the last lot of modification kits.

A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron is prepared for departure at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. The reputable B-1 returned to the US Central Command area of operations in April to combat Taliban and other terrorist groups after two years of supporting the United States Pacific Command.
SSgt Joshua Horton/US Air Force
Airmen assigned to the 379th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron conduct a weapons load training exercise on a B-1B Lancer with inert munitions at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. The event involved reconfiguring the aircraft with inert munitions to maintain a high state of readiness. The B-1B Lancer carries the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the Air Force inventory and is the backbone of America’s long-range bomber force. It can rapidly deliver precision and non-precision weapons including up to 24 AGM-158A Joint Air-to-Surface Stand of Munitions.
TSgt Ted Nichols/US Air Force

B-1B Lancer units

Air Force Global Strike Command

7th Bomb Wing, Dyess AFB, Texas

9th Bomb Squadron

28th Bomb Squadron (training)

28th Bomb Wing, Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota

34th Bomb Squadron

37th Bomb Squadron

Air Force Reserve Command

489th Bomb Group, Dyess AFB, Texas

345th Bomb Squadron, both associate units

Air Combat Command

53rd Wing, Eglin AFB, Florida

337th Test and Evaluation Squadron, based at Dyess

57th Wing, Nellis AFB, Nevada

77th Weapons Squadron, based at Dyess

Air Force Materiel Command

412th Test Wing, Edwards AFB, California

419th Flight Test Squadron

Ray said: “I would not ask aircrew to fly without modified seats.” Modified aircraft are being used a lot more for training, though the commanders are given latitude in determining which ones to fly. Ray is pleased with the Air Force’s response: “I am proud of our ability to find fixes and get them on the aircraft. No one else can fix these things as fast. We are pretty good at mitigating the risks.”

Armament and operations

Originally designed as a penetrating nuclear bomber, the B-1B is today GSC’s only purely conventional bomber with the largest weapons load-out; the result of its multiyear Conventional Munitions Upgrade Program.

Its three internal weapons bays allow carriage of different weapons. In addition to the Joint Direct Attack Munition, Joint Air-to- Surface Stand of Missile and the extended range version dubbed JASSM-ER, the B-1B is capable of being armed with the Raytheon AGM-154 Joint Stand-Of Weapon, though this has never been used in action by the type.

The B-1B has been capable of delivering the GBU-54 laser-guided JDAM since 2011 and have been tested against land and maritime moving targets. The B-1B can also carry 500lb, 1,000lb and 2,000lb conventional bombs and the Lockheed Martin Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser. In Exercise Valiant Shield 2016, B-1Bs forward deployed to Guam employed 500lb Quickstrike mines.

B-1Bs operated by the 28th Bomb Wing based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, are now capable of employing the new Lockheed Martin AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) designed to meet an urgent operational requirement for the western Pacific theatre. DARPA’s LRASM Deployment Office was formed in February 2014. Following a successful two-missile launch from a B-1B at the Pacific Missile Test Range of the coast of southern California on May 22, crews started training with the LRASM in June 2018; early operational capability was planned for October.

The LRASM was used to sink a decommissioned target ship as part of Exercise Valiant Shield 2018 staged on Guam in September.

Ray, who previously commanded a B-1B wing, considers its improved maritime capability an advantage. He said: “Knowing we have only a limited number of naval assets, it is one thing we could quickly flex.” Speaking about operational integration of LRASMarmed B-1Bs at the Air Force Association’s symposium in Washington on September 19, Pacific Air Forces Commander General Charles Brown Jr said: “We are looking at how we would actually employ it and working very closely with the Pacific Fleet on that.”

Since continuous B-1B operations in the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR) wound down in 2014 (they started in 2001), the B-1B fleet has provided much of the Air Force’s continuous bomber presence in the Pacific Command (PACOM) AOR. B-1Bs deployed to joint exercises with Japanese and Republic of Korea forces in 2017.

Escorted by F-15Cs from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, a B-1B flew to the most northern point of the Korean demilitarised zone for the first time in the 21st century.

This year, the B-1B returned to the CENTCOM AOR. On March 31, 2018, a detachment from Ellsworth deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Soon after, two of the B-1Bs took part in the joint USUK- French strike against Syrian chemical warfare capabilities, launching 19 JASSMERs, the missile’s first combat use. General Tod Wolters, Commander of Allied Air Command Europe, said in Washington on September 17 that the mission was part of a well-vetted and thorough multidomain operation. On May 18, a Qatar-based B-1B bombed Taliban targets related to the narcotics trade in Afghanistan. In August 2018, a B-1B was called in against Afghan Taliban insurgents that had penetrated into the city of Ghazni.

Before deploying to CENTCOM or PACOM, B-1Bs fly US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) tasking, which involves use of the aircraft’s sensors and communication suites for detecting and checking out maritime threats such as suspected drug smugglers.

According to Rand, GSC’s support of SOUTHCOM provides persistent ISR and that the United States should pay more attention to what is going on in its back yard.