B-1B Lancer: The Air Force's Aging Bomb Truck

November 9, 2023 Topic: B-1B Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: B-1BB-1B LancerBomberU.S. Air ForceAir Force

B-1B Lancer: The Air Force's Aging Bomb Truck

The B-1B Lancer is scheduled to be retired within the next two decades. Actually, the process has already begun: less than half of the 104 Lancers produced are still in service, with the rest slated to follow – all to make way for the upcoming B-21 Raider.

The B-1B Lancer is scheduled to be retired within the next two decades. Actually, the process has already begun: less than half of the 104 Lancers produced are still in service, with the rest slated to follow – all to make way for the upcoming B-21 Raider.

And while aviation enthusiasts may lament the B-1’s pending requirement, it’s best to remember that the B-1 program was almost canned before ever rolling off the assembly line.

A Political Question

Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-president, best remembered for ‘trickle-down economics,’ Iran-Contra, and his ‘tear down this wall’ speech, can take due credit for the B-1's inclusion in the U.S. Air Force. When Reagan took office in 1981, the B-1 program had already been canceled – and it is safe to say, had Reagan not taken office, the B-1 would have remained canceled.

As a follow-up to the B-52 bomber, the U.S. Air Force initiated the Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA) program in the 1960s to develop a low-altitude bomber capable of penetrating enemy airspace. AMSA progressed slowly, finally producing a prototype (the B-1A) in 1974. But in 1976, the year of a tightly contested presidential election, the B-1 became a political hot topic. Three viable candidates all expressed different viewpoints on the B-1, indicating that the future of the program would be tied closely to the election results.

Gerald Ford, running to retain the presidency after Nixon’s retirement, “pledged to build the B-1 in numbers sufficient “to keep our strategic airpower strong in the future.”’

Challenging Ford for the Republican nomination was Reagan, who “contended that the Ford Administration had allowed the United States to fall behind the Soviet Union in military power, particularly in strategic airpower.”

Jimmy Carter, a submarine officer turned peanut farmer turned Governor of Georgia, running on the Democrat’s ticket, reflected “his own party’s post-Vietnam skepticism of military power,” calling “the B-1 a wasteful and unnecessary program.” Carter pledged to oppose the B-1 program if he were elected.

Clearly, the B-1’s fate was tied to the election.

Carter prevailed, of course, entering office with more dovish tendencies than his Republican contemporaries, believing that “the Soviet Union would react favorably if Washington unilaterally constrained its strategic nuclear programs.” As expected, Carter canceled the B-1 program on June 30, 1977, calling the program “a very expensive weapon” that was “not now necessary” because of the “recent evolution of the cruise missile.”

Carter’s first term was marred, however, with national security gaffes – most notably the Desert One debacle, and the general failure to extract US hostages from Iran – leaving the American public with the perception that Carter was weak on defense. In 1980, Americans elected Reagan to the White House, in what was generally viewed as a refutation of Carter’s dovish tendencies, in favor of Reagan’s more jingoist and muscular anti-Communism. Reagan responded to his election by resurrecting the B-1 program.

The B-1 Finally Enters Service

The resurrected B-1, known as the B-variant, was distinct beyond just its political history. The B-1B featured a blended wing body configuration with variable-sweep wings (a technology most commonly associated with Top Gun’s F-14 Tomcat). The Lancer’s sweep-wings were able to swing from a 15-degree setting (fully extended forward) to a 67.5-degree setting (fully swept back), depending on the needs of the moment. The 15-degree position, which creates more lift and drag, is used for takeoff and landing and high-altitude cruising, whereas the 67.5-degree position, which reduces drag, is used for high subsonic and supersonic flight.

To achieve a maximum speed of Mach 1.25, and a range of 5.100 nautical miles, the B-1B relies on four General Electric F101-GE-102 afterburning turbofan engines. Each of the turbofan engines offers 17,390 pounds of thrust per engine, without the afterburner, and 30,780 pounds per engine with the afterburner engaged.

Ultimately, the sweep-wings and turbofan engines are about facilitating the Lancer’s primary purpose: heavy bombing. This means the whole platform is really built around delivering ordnance on target. And with respect to weapons payload, the B-1B is an impressive vehicle. With a max takeoff weight of 477,000 pounds, the B-1B was designed to operate with a massive weapons payload, carried both internally and externally. The B-1B can carry both missiles (JSOW, Anti-Ship, Air-to-Surface) and bombs). To date, the B-1B has delivered a variety of conventional weapons in war zones – most notably, the GBU-31 2,000-pound JDAM.

Headed Into the Sunset

Despite a venerable service history, the B-1B’s days are numbered. While the Air Force has not said precisely when it plans to retire the remaining in-service Lancers, estimates hold that the heavy bomber will be mothballed sometime before 2035. The B-1B retirement will make way for the upcoming B-21 Raider, a stealth-capable flying wing that looks like an updated version of the B-2 Spirit (which is also being retired).

So while aviation enthusiasts may lament the retirement of the B-1B, it’s best to remember that the airframe also never existed at all.  

Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor and opinion writer at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.

All images are Creative Commons.