The B-1 Bomber Saga
From Concept to Cancelation
The concept behind the B-1 began in 1964 with a United States Air Force (USAF) requirement for an aircraft that could fly supersonic at high altitude and at high subsonic speed at low altitude. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara didn’t believe crewed bombers were necessary as a nuclear deterrent. He limited the project’s development to studies and component development. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird started the B-1A project in April 1969. The B-1A, serial number 74-0158, made its first flight on December 23, 1974. The estimated unit cost for the B-1A rose from an estimated $40 million in 1970 to $100 million in 1977. President Jimmy Carter canceled the B-1A program on June 30, 1977.
On October 2, 1981 President Ronald Reagan restarted the B-1 program and planned to order 100 aircraft. The B-1 was redesigned to reduce it radar signature as well as other improvements. The resulting aircraft was the B-1B. Critics claimed the B-1B was unnecessary because a stealth bomber was under development and would be available in less than a decade. The USAF spread the B-1B subcontracts such that every state in the continental United States had a B-1B related contract. This made it popular in congress. B-1B flight tests began on March 1983. The first production B-1B flew on October 8, 1984. A prototype B-1B crashed in August 1984. The crash killed 1 crew member and injured 2. A bird strike caused the crash of the first production B-1B on September 28, 1987. The B-1B’s engines were designed to ingest a 4-pound bird without causing significant damage.[i] In this case a B-1B engine ingested a 20-pound bird. The crash killed 3 crew of the six crew members.[ii] Rockwell International delivered the last B-1B on May 2, 1988.
In Operation Desert Shield almost every combat aircraft in the U.S. military’s inventory participated. It was the biggest U.S. military action since Vietnam. The B-52 was one of the stars of Operation Desert Storm. The B-1B was conspicuous by its absence. It was a moot point but it gave the B-1 detractors an opportunity to say, “we told you so”. The B-1s were performing their mission as the third leg of the U.S. military’s nuclear triad.[iii] The United States eliminated the nuclear mission for the B-1B in 1994.[iv]
[i] Los Angeles Times, B-1 Bomber ‘Ingests’ Birds, Crashes, September 29, 1987, http://articles.latimes.com/1987-09-29/news/mn-11023_1_bird-strike, last accessed 2/17/18.
[ii] The crash killed; Majors James T. Acklin and Wayne D. Whitlock, and 1st Lieutenant Ricky M. Bean. Major William H. Price and Captains Joseph S. Butler and Laurence H. Haskell survived the crash.
[iii] The three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad are; Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers.
[iv] USAF web site, Fact Sheet, B-1B Lancer, published December 16, 2015, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104500/b-1b-lancer/, last accessed February 12, 2018.
The B-1B Lancer in Combat
The B-1B first saw combat in Operation Desert Fox, a 4-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998. Four B-1Bs flew Desert Fox missions. The Lancers used conventional 500pound bombs. An Iraqi barracks was one of the targets the B-1Bs destroyed. B-1Bs also flew Operation Allied Force missions.[i] Among the targets Lancers destroyed was a small arms factory at Krqgujeac. Six B-1Bs participated in Operation Allied Force. They flew less than 2% of the combat sorties. Lancers delivered over 20% of the total ordinance delivered during the Operation Allied Force.[ii]’
Operation Enduring Freedom began on October 7, 2001. B-1Bs made their first strikes against Afghanistan on Day 1 of the Operation. On December 12, 2001 a B-1B was flying from Diego Garcia on a mission to Afghanistan. The Lancer had multiple system malfunctions and crashed 50 kilometers from Diego Garcia. The crew ejected safely and the USS Russell rescued them. Ironically the B-1’s Defensive Systems Officer had the call sign “Lost”. Eight Lancers participated in the first 6 months of Operation Enduring Freedom. These B-1s dropped almost 40% of the total bomb tonnage delivered by the coalition air forces.[iii]’ The B-1Bs continued flying Operation Enduring Freedom missions. Some news coverage proclaimed the B-1 the star of the operation.
In Operation Iraqi Freedom B-1s flew less than 1% of the combat missions but delivered 43% of the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). On March 30, 2003 B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s attacked simultaneous targets. These included leadership command and control targets. It was the first time these 3 aircraft types flew missions where they attacked simultaneous targets. On April 7, 2003 a B-1B, serial number 86-0138, dropped GBU-31s on the al Sea restaurant, a leadership target.[iv]
During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom B-1Bs flew bombing, show of force, overwatch, and reconnaissance missions. In Afghanistan in 2007 B-1Bs participated in a Search and Rescue operation when Taliban forces shot down a NATO CH-47 helicopter. A B-1B crew, Bone 23, won the 2009 Mackay Trophy for their actions on July 13, 2008. Bone 23 disrupted an attack by 200 Taliban troops. Bone 23’s intervention allowed coalition forces to regroup. In 2011 B1Bs flew 1,200 combat sorties, executed 3,000 tactical air requests, intervened in 432 ground engagements, and dropped 700 weapons. During the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011 B-1Bs flew from Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota to bomb Libyan targets. This was the first time B-1Bs flew a combat mission for a continental U.S. base. On September 23, 2014 B-1Bs attacked ISIL forces. In November 2014 a B-1B destroyed a Khorasan Group weapons storage facility.
[i] Operation Allied Force was an air campaign against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. The operation lasted from Mary 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999.
[ii] USAF web site, Fact Sheet, B-1B Lancer, published December 16, 2015, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104500/b-1b-lancer/, last accessed February 12, 2018.
[iii] USAF web site, Fact Sheet, B-1B Lancer, published December 16, 2015, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104500/b-1b-lancer/, last accessed February 12, 2018.
[iv] The crew was; Captain Chris Wachter the aircraft commander, Captain Sloan Hollis the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Swan and 1st Lieutenant Joe Runci werethe weapons systems offi1cers,
4 engines each with over 30,000lbs thrust
Maximum take off weight
477,000 pounds (216,634 kilograms)
75,000 pounds (34,019 kilograms)
Speed at sea level
900-plus mph (Mach 1.2)
84 500-pound Mk-82 or 24 2,000-pound Mk-84 general purpose bombs; up to 84 500-pound Mk-62 or 8 2,000-pound Mk-65 Quick Strike naval mines; 30 cluster munitions (CBU-87, -89, -97) or 30 Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispensers (CBU-103, -104, -105); up to 24 2,000-pound GBU-31 or 15 500-pound GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions; up to 24 AGM-158A Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles; 15 GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions
Four (aircraft commander, copilot, and two combat systems officers)
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© 2018 Robert Sacchi