The United States Air Force has tested ways that the Cold War-era Boeing B-1B Lancer could be used to carry hypersonic weapons externally. External pylons were originally designed for use on the B-1s but were later scrapped to comply with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Recently the Air Force has taken the opinion that the return to the use of external hardpoints would not violate the New START agreement.
While the B-1 was originally designed for nuclear capabilities, the aircraft were switched exclusively to a conventional combat role in the mid-1990s under the Conventional Mission Upgrade Program. This was brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – and President George H.W. Bush ordered the $3 billion refit, which included the removal of nuclear arming and fuzing hardware – while provision under the New START treaty additional modifications were further made to prevent nuclear weapon pylons from being attached to the aircraft. The conversion process was completed by 2011, and Russian officials have been allowed to inspect the aircraft yearly to verify compliance.
The conventional upgrade program included a series of upgrades: Block C, which was completed in 1997 gave the aircraft the capability to drop cluster bombs; Block D, completed in June 2001 included the deployment of the JDAM defensive system, new navigation and communications systems; while the Block E, which was completed in September 2006, added capability to deploy joint stand-off weapons (JSOW) and joint air-to-surface stand-off missiles (JASSM). An additional Block F, which included the defensive system upgrade program (DSUP), was terminated.
In recent years, the Air Force has continued to upgrade and update the aging warbird – and the plan is for the B-1 fleet to remain in service well into the 2030s when the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider enters service.
Flying High Work Horse
Since the conversion to a conventional bomber, the Air Force has employed the B-1B Lancer fleet in countless sorties. While six of the B-1s flew just two percent of the strike missions during Operation Allied Force in 1996, those aircraft dropped 20 percent of the Ordnance; and during Operation Enduring Freedom, B-1s flew two percent of sorties and dropped more than 40 percent of precision weapons.
The aging aircraft have put in a lot of miles, and B-1s have been nearly continuously deployed in combat operations over Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.
Today the B-1B is not armed with nuclear weapons, but it is still capable of carrying the AGM-86B air launch cruise missile (ALCM) and the AGM-69 short-range attack missile. The B-1s feature three internal weapon bays, as well as six external hardpoints over the fuselage – and the aircraft have a maximum internal weapons payload of 75,000 pounds and a maximum external weapons payload of 59,000 pounds.
The Air Force maintains a fleet of just 62 B-1s, and today the Lancers remain part of the service's spearhead – and continue to effectively address the threats in an ever-changing world.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.