Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force announced plans to retire the B-1B Lancer (also known as the “Bone”) in favor of the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber. The B-1B will remain in service for some time, but unlike its older cousin the B-52, its days are apparently numbered. The B-1B has served in a variety of capacities since the 1980s, demonstrating a remarkable degree of mission flexibility.
Origins of the B-1B
The B-1B evolved from the B-1A, which itself rose from the ashes of the B-70 Valkyrie. U.S. strategic bomber development stalled out in the 1960s, as concerns about Soviet SAM defenses forced the air force to reinvent its mission concept. Fast, high-flying bombers fell out of favor, while the B-52 (which excelled in a low altitude role) remained relevant beyond its expiration date. Nevertheless, the air force still wanted a supersonic bomber. The Nixon administration was more flexible on this question than the Johnson administration, and studies began in 1969. The first prototype flew in 1974. As designed, the B-1A could exceed mach 2 at high altitude, mach 1.2 at low altitude.
Even then, the B-1 remained controversial. U.S. intel suggested that Soviet radars were improving, making the low altitude penetration mission riskier. At the same time, the development of short-range cruise missiles offered to make the B-52 a more formidable platform. The Carter administration cancelled the B-1A in an effort to cut costs and make the defense budget more efficient.
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The Reagan administration reversed this verdict. Reagan was more interested in pushing the Soviet Union to its limits, and analysis of the cost of the Soviet air defense network reinforced the idea that a new strategic bomber would put the USSR at a cost disadvantage. The B-1A was reworked into the B-1B which was slower, somewhat less expensive and had a smaller radar cross-section. Rockwell built 100 B-1Bs for the air force, as well as four B-1A prototypes. Sixty-six of the aircraft remain in service.
The B-1B’s Capabilities
The B-1B has impressive specifications. It can make mach 1.25, although in practice the speed is lower because of altitude and structural stability considerations. It can carry 125,000 pounds of ordnance with a combat radius of roughly 3000 miles. Its service ceiling is 60,000 feet.
In the first decades of its life, the B-1B was primarily a nuclear deterrence bomber. But with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bone lost the nuclear mission. By treaty agreement with Russia, the main bomb bay in the B-1B was subdivided into two sections, and several other modifications were made. The process began in 1995, and was complete on all remaining aircraft by 2011. Along the way, various updates improved the ability of the B-1B to precision-deliver conventional munitions, including advanced targeting electronics, and additional fixtures necessary to delivering a large number of bombs.
The B-1B sat out the first Gulf War, a conflict which established a new paradigm for the use of airpower. Tactical operations could now have strategic effect, a shift that blurred the longstanding distinction between fighters and bombers. The Bone saw its first combat during Operation Desert Fox in 1998, delivering unguided bombs against Iraqi targets. It has since been used in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and in Syria—against both ISIS and Syrian government targets. During those conflicts, the B-1B has been used for precision bombing attacks, including for close air support. Because of its range, it can remain on station for longer than the fighter-bombers that the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy employ, although not as long as many drones. In context of the history of airpower theory and doctrine, there is a deep irony to the fact that the B-1B has found its greatest utility in attacks against lightly armed groups of guerillas, rather than against industrial complexes or nuclear installations.
In April 2018, B-1Bs launched nineteen JASSM cruise missiles against Syrian targets, in retaliation for the Assad regime's alleged chemical weapons attacks. This was the first use of the AGM-158 JASSM, which adds to the already extended strike range of the B-1B. The stealth capabilities of the JASSM also give the Bone an extra punch against targets in defended airspace.
The Future of the B-1B
The B-1B is scheduled for retirement as the B-21 Raider comes into service. Ironically, the Bone will head to the Boneyard before the plane it was intended to replace, the B-52. The bombers will begin leaving service in 2025, and the last B-1B will likely leave service around 2036. Most of the air frames will be between forty and fifty years old at retirement. Of course, delays in the B-21 program or changes in the strategic situations could force the air force to keep the B-1B around for longer, much as the B-52 has remained in service well beyond a variety of projected retirement dates. When the last B-1B retires, the United States will no longer have a dedicated bomber capable of supersonic flight—but stealth replaced speed as the key metric of a bomber’s effectiveness some time ago.
The B-1B was intended to deliver nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union. Fortunately, it never undertook that mission; instead, it ended up hunting insurgents in Afghanistan and firing cruise missiles at nearly abandoned Syrian air bases. Indeed, at one point both the B-1B and its Soviet counterpart, the Tu-160, were bombing insurgent targets in Syria. The success of the B-1B in missions like this is reflective of the flexibility of large, high-performance airframes. The B-52 continues to survive primarily because of this flexibility; it remains to be seen whether dedicated stealth platforms like the B-21 can succeed in so many different missions.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.