Military aircraft seldom take an uneventful road to full operational service and such was the case with the storied Rockwell B-1 "Lancer" heavy bomber of the United States Air Force (USAF). The Lancer was developed as a nuclear-capable, high-speed bomber to replace the venerable Boeing B-52 "Stratofortress" heavy bombers in service with the USAF since 1955. The Mach 3-capable North American XB-70 Valkyrie was originally set to become the primary heavy bomber of the USAF and Strategic Air Command (SAC) - as well as serving as the B-52's original replacement - but the global political climate, advancing technologies, and an unfortunate accident ultimately led to the product's cancellation. Key forces behind the demise of the XB-70 were advances in Soviet air defenses (in both radar and missile technologies as well as manned interceptors like the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 "Foxbat") and the growing U.S. focus on ICBMs and cruise missiles as a first-strike, radar-evading, low cost alternative to a manned bomber approach. Beyond the B-52 for the high-altitude bombing role, USAF SAC held only the "swing wing" General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark" in its stable and this was used primarily in the low-level strike role. The B-52 was a subsonic "heavy" while the F-111 operated as a supersonic system with a much more limited bomb load.
With the end of the XB-70 venture, the USAF continued with design studies for a new generation bomber throughout the 1960s, first under the Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA) program for it was deemed that manned bombers still carried better accuracy than missiles of the day. A myriad of forms and types were bandied about - delta wing planforms, swing-wing options, subsonic penetrators - and all were to integrate the latest in radar-evading technology where possible - a far cry from the design lines and brute function of the massive B-52.
The period of studies spanned from the early 1960s into the latter part of the decade to which certain qualities of the new bomber began to emerge: a crew of four for the expected mission load, variable sweep wings for high-speed dashing at low altitude, a large airframe for the needed mix of fuel and weapons (to be held internally), and Mach 2 (minimum) performance. The aircraft would also be required to take off and land in short order and carry with it a high degree of crew/aircraft survivability. Its payload would consist of nuclear ordnance / stand-off missiles to fulfill one-third of the "Nuclear Triad" doctrine employed by the Americans - nuclear missiles launched from the air, land or sea. In this way, one corner of the triangle could back the other as a fail-safe in the aftermath of a first-strike by the Soviets.
The B-1B has been upgraded along several lines to keep it a viable aerial weapons delivery platform for the foreseeable future. Its radar system was upgraded through the Radar Reliability and Maintainability Improvement Program (RRMIP) as reliability of these units became a recurring sticking point in service due to age. The navigation suite was also upgraded as were battlefield situational awareness systems. The cockpit will see a revision to include color Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) added as well as instrumentation upgrades. Work is expected to be completed by 2020.
A proposed B-1 upgraded variant is the B-1R ("Regional"). The line would receive air-to-air missile capability on additional external hardpoints, new Pratt & Whitney F119 series turbofan engines, modern radar (including AESA), and increased speed to Mach 2.2 though with reduced range.
The B-1B has seen combat action over Iraq (Operation Desert Fox, 1998), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003). It missed out on Operation Desert Storm (1991) for its conventional bombing functionality has not been added by then and engine issues further kept the aircraft from participating. For the offensive against Saddam Hussein's vaunted forces, the B-52 took the place of the B-1B in the conventional bombing role.
Throughout its operational tenure, the B-1 has served with Strategic Air Command, Air Combat Command, the Air National Guard, and with the Air Force Flight Test Center. Two B-1A bombers were claimed as museum showpieces while some eight B-1B series aircraft have also been saved from the scrap heap in the same way. Though stripped of its nuclear-carrying and delivery capability, the remaining B-1Bs in service can very well be retrofitted for the nuclear role once more if needed.
The B-1 is affectionately known as "Bone" for its designation - "B-One".
- Ground Attack
146.00 ft (44.5 m)
137.14 ft (41.8 m)
34.12 ft (10.4 m)
192,023 lb (87,100 kg)
477,080 lb (216,400 kg)
833 mph (1,340 kph; 724 kts)
59,055 feet (18,000 m; 11.18 miles)
7,456 miles (12,000 km; 6,479 nm)
Up to 59,000 lb of ordnance across six external hardpoints and 75,000 lb in three internal bomb bays. Munitions load can include the following:
24 x GBU-31 GPS-Aided JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition).
24 x BLU-109 penetrating bombs.
24 x Mk-84 2,000-pound general purpose bombs.
8 x Mk-85 naval mines.
84 x Mk-82 500-pound general purpose bombs.
84 x Mk-62 500-pound naval mines.
30 x CBU-87 cluster munitions.
30 x CBU-89 cluster munitions.
30 x CBU-97 cluster munitions.
30 x CBU-103 WCMD.
30 x CBU-104 WCMD
30 x CBU-105 WCMD
24 x AGM-69A SRAM-A Short Range Attack Missiles.
24 x AGM-158 JASSM.
12 x AGM-154 JSOW.
12 x B-28 freefall nuclear bombs.
12 x B-43 freefall nuclear bombs.
24 x B-61 freefall thermonuclear bombs.
24 x B-83 freefall thermonuclear bombs.
28 x B-93 freefall nuclear bombs.
8 x AGM-86B ALCM (internal on rotary launcher).
12 x ALCM (external underwing launchers).
B-1A - Initial Model Designation of which four produced; primarily used in testing; Mach 2+ capable speed; variable air inlets; crew escape capsule ejection system.
B-1B - Definitive Production Model; improved B-1; RAM coating, individual ejection seats, improved avionics, weapons bay/fuel tanks, fixed air inlets, increased MTOW, and reduced Mach speed; 100 examples.
B-1R ("Regional") - Proposed modernization of B-1B; AESA, external hardpoints for AAMs; Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines; improved radar capability; Mach 2+ speed with reduced operational ranges.