The Air Force is making sure its long-serving, combat tested B-1 bomber lives to fight for several more years with upgraded sensor displays, navigational systems and a new generation of precision-guided destructive air-launched weapons. In fact, its new weapons will include hypersonic, larger air-dropped glide bombs and newer kinds of air-ground missiles launched from recently added external hardpoints.
Much of the extended mission life for the B-1, which is now experiencing an uptick in deployments with recent missions in India and Norway, pertains to the planned addition of both internally and externally launched hypersonic weapons.
One interesting and now emerging weapon is a now developing Hypersonic Cruise Missile (HACM), which could arm the B-52 or perhaps even a B-2 or a B-1B.
“We are in the discussion for how HACM gets developed. HACM will give us an additional set of capabilities fitted for bombers and fighter aircraft,” General Timothy Ray, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command, told reporters at the 2021 Air Force Association conference.
The effort to arm the B-1 with hypersonic missiles has been well underway for several years, as a “mock up” of a B-1B weapons bay configured to carry up to four hypersonic weapons internally was put on display as far back as 2019.
“In a demo I saw, the bulkhead moves as it’s designed...when you take a CRL (Conventional Rotary Launcher) as it’s designed. The mock up they had was one of the larger hypersonic weapons. It will be able to carry four or more hypersonic weapons internally. You can see the merit of that,” Ray said back at the AFA Symposium in 2019.
The previous demonstration was part of a multi-year trajectory to upgrade and sustain the B-1 such that it could remain relevant for many more years until newer B-21 stealth bombers arrive. It is an older plane, however, so adding a new generation of high-tech weapons can change its potential warzone effectiveness in an impactful way. In 2019, Ray said the Air Force was at that time planning to fly the B-1 well into the next several decades.
An Air Force news report at the time of the demonstration stated that the demonstration showed that a B-1B magazine capacity could be increased from twenty-four weapons up to as many as forty. The bomb bay configuration also enables the B-1 to carry larger, 5,000-pound weapons along with hypersonic weapons.
Upgrades to the B-1 have been underway for many years now, with some of them dating back as far as 2014. On such technological improvement, Called Integrated Battle Station, or IBS, the upgrades consist of three separate efforts to install new displays, integrated data links and diagnostic technologies. Other upgrades have included moving to color display technologies for pilots and a new inertial navigation system which, service developers explained, replaced two spinning mass gyroscopic inertial navigation systems with ring laser gyroscopic systems and a new GPS antenna.
Other upgrades are what the Air Force called vertical situation display upgrade or VDSU, an effort to replace existing flight instruments with eight-by-six-inch multifunction color displays at each pilot station, according to Air Force weapons developers. The VDSU adds a second display at each pilot station to better enable pilots to avoid threats and strike emerging targets while functioning as a back-up display. Yet another piece of the multi-year, multipronged upgrade includes fully integrated data link, or FIDL. FIDL provides ethernet to transmit flight and weapon data among aircrew stations and to other off-board receivers via line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight networks, an Air Force Weapons developer told me earlier in the developmental trajectory of the upgrades.
The B-1 has flown attack missions across a number of years in different military campaigns including Operation Desert Fox over Iraq in 1998, missions in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before flying combat sorties over Libya in 2011. During the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom, eight B-1s dropped nearly 40 percent of the total tonnage delivered by coalition air forces, attack operations which included thousands of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, Air Force officials said.
The aircraft is thirty-four-feet tall, 146-feet long and has a wingspan of 137 feet. The B-1 weighs roughly 196,000 pounds and can hit speeds greater than 900 mph. Its four General Electric turbofan engines each generate 30,000 pounds of thrust.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.