After the Cold War, the B-1 platform lost a clear mission, their specific role was no longer needed. In Afghanistan they found a new calling as a ground-attack, close air-support platform, thanks to a high weapon load out, and long loiter times.
Fast forward to today. The United States’ hypersonic missile program seems to be moving along at a fast clip.
Air Force General Timothy Ray said that the Air Force plans on reinstalling eight external pylons on B-1s that were removed due to treaty restrictions. These external pylons would be used for attaching hypersonic missiles.
One of the options in the Air Force arsenal is the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, a hypersonic cruise missile. The AGM-138 is a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle that is contained within a booster. Although details are unknown for certain, it would be capable of flying over Mach 5.
But there is another hypersonic option that is being developed. The Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, is a joint Darpa-U.S. Air Force project.
According to a DARPA press release, the HAWC project aims to “to develop and demonstrate critical technologies to enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile,” a possible indication that the HAWC is more of a technology demonstrator or test platform.
An Air Force Magazine article underscored the variety of hypersonic missiles the B-1 could carry in its bomb bays and on external pylons. The Air Force has been “thinking about mixed carriage of hypersonic missiles both internally and externally, on the B-1 and B-52. Using the external hardpoints… a B-1 could conceivably carry 31 hypersonic missiles.” That would be the very definition of armed to the teeth. Despite these lofty plans, there are still some hurdles.
Old-age Aches and Pains
“My goal would be to bring on at least a squadron’s worth of airplanes modified with external pylons on the B-1, to carry the ARRW hypersonic cruise missile,” General Ray said.
He admitted that some of the B-1s need substantial work, but that the Air Force has “got support from Congress to do this. This is a thing that we’re working to get ourselves through. We’ve had a very good dialog.”
As I previously wrote, the B-1 has had a bumpy ride. As of last year, B-1s were restricted from low-level flight, due to the additional stress those types of flights put on airframes. The Bones may be starting to show their age.
Perhaps the B-1 Bone has escaped the executioner’s axe. Hypersonic missiles might just be their saving grace.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.
Image: Defense Department.