B-1 'Lancer' 1 of 2

B-1 "Lancer" Front View 1 of 2

Front view of the B-1 "Lancer"

Rockwell B-1 Lancer

Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited: 05/27/2021 | Content © | The following text is exclusive to this site.

Military aircraft seldom take an uneventful road to full operational service and such was the case with the storied Rockwell B-1 "Lancer" heavy bomber of the United States Air Force (USAF). The Lancer was developed as a nuclear-capable, high-speed bomber to replace the venerable Boeing B-52 "Stratofortress" heavy bombers in service with the USAF since 1955. The Mach 3-capable North American XB-70 Valkyrie was originally set to become the primary heavy bomber of the USAF and Strategic Air Command (SAC) - as well as serving as the B-52's original replacement - but the global political climate, advancing technologies, and an unfortunate accident ultimately led to the product's cancellation. Key forces behind the demise of the XB-70 were advances in Soviet air defenses (in both radar and missile technologies as well as manned interceptors like the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 "Foxbat") and the growing U.S. focus on ICBMs and cruise missiles as a first-strike, radar-evading, low cost alternative to a manned bomber approach. Beyond the B-52 for the high-altitude bombing role, USAF SAC held only the "swing wing" General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark" in its stable and this was used primarily in the low-level strike role. The B-52 was a subsonic "heavy" while the F-111 operated as a supersonic system with a much more limited bomb load.

The New Bomber Requirement

With the end of the XB-70 venture, the USAF continued with design studies for a new generation bomber throughout the 1960s, first under the Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA) program for it was deemed that manned bombers still carried better accuracy than missiles of the day. A myriad of forms and types were bandied about - delta wing planforms, swing-wing options, subsonic penetrators - and all were to integrate the latest in radar-evading technology where possible - a far cry from the design lines and brute function of the massive B-52.

The period of studies spanned from the early 1960s into the latter part of the decade to which certain qualities of the new bomber began to emerge: a crew of four for the expected mission load, variable sweep wings for high-speed dashing at low altitude, a large airframe for the needed mix of fuel and weapons (to be held internally), and Mach 2 (minimum) performance. The aircraft would also be required to take off and land in short order and carry with it a high degree of crew/aircraft survivability. Its payload would consist of nuclear ordnance / stand-off missiles to fulfill one-third of the "Nuclear Triad" doctrine employed by the Americans - nuclear missiles launched from the air, land or sea. In this way, one corner of the triangle could back the other as a fail-safe in the aftermath of a first-strike by the Soviets.

A four-year study began in 1965 to fulfill the need and several principle names in the American defense industry responded - North American, Boeing, and General Dynamics. In March of 1967, North American merged with Rockwell International to become North American Rockwell.

North American Rockwell Wins Out

With the close of the formal design study period in November of 1969, the USAF moved on an official Request For Proposal (RFP) with Boeing, General Dynamics, and North American Rockwell all delivering their best submissions. For North American, this became the D481-55B. After review, North American Rockwell was selected the winner of the competition on June 5th, 1970. The aircraft was to carry the designation of "B-1A" and the contract covered seven total airframes - five flyable and the remaining two to be used as static testbeds. To go along with the new aircraft was an all-new engine initiative and this fell to military/civilian engine stalwart General Electric for their F101-GE-100 of 30,000 lb thrust output with afterburner capability.

Interim Measures

It would take some time to get the B-1A into USAF pilot hands so, as an interim measure, the General Dynamics F-111 was modified for the strategic bomber role and the Boeing B-52 itself revised to also fulfill a low-level penetrator function. The would help to bring SAC capability up to par for the growing threat posed by Soviet air defenses and its interceptors - a network that already showed its capabilities with the downing of Gary Powers' U-2 in 1960. With the measures in place, the B-1A was allowed to advance under its own timeline.

B-1 Bomber Walk-Around

The finalized B-1A form became a slender aircraft given a streamlined fuselage, blended wing roots, underslung engine pairs, and a single vertical tail fin. The long nose cone housed radar while the cockpit included seating for the four crew in a side-by-side arrangement - the pilots in front and the offensive/defensive systems specialists aft. A whole-crew escape capsule was the primary means of survival as opposed to individual ejection seats. The swing wing approach was adopted for the needed runway, low / high altitude performance phases of the aircraft's operation. These structures rested at a 15-degree angle and became swept at a 67.5-degree angle when needed. Four engines gave the airframe a Mach 2+ maximum speed. The construction makeup of the aircraft was a mix of aluminum alloys, steel, titanium, composites, fiberglass, and polymide quartz (over 41% of the aircraft was aluminum). In-flight refueling was made possible through a port over the nose just ahead of the front windscreen.

USAF representatives reviewed their new bomber in a little over a year from when the contract was granted. Despite the hundreds of changes requested, the aircraft was a sound, promising venture and a far cry from the bombers of the 1950s and 1960s. The initial B-1A was unveiled to the public in October of 1974 and a first flight followed on December 23rd, 1974. A period of heavy flight testing followed that showcased a product fulfilling nearly all of the USAF requirements for their new bomber.

Due to the shifting political landscape of the United States in the late 1970s, the B-1A initiative was cancelled in favor of further development on ICBMs and cruise missiles. This left just three completed B-1A aircraft. The cancellation of the B-1A and its GE engine came on June 30th, 1977 with the inbound Carter Administration though the product was able to exist in limited development for possible future value. The 1978 defense spending budget allotted funding for a fourth B-1A.

The B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber

As the B-1A program wound down, Northrop Grumman was working on the USAF's new "Advanced Technology Bomber" (ATB) - a true stealth initiative that was to serve as a replacement to the B-52 and as successor to the B-1A. This platform was to become a much more advanced product than the B-1A but with such advances came heavier costs - of the 132 originally envisioned, just 21 would be actually procured. Also, the B-2 would not come online (in strength) until 1987 which left a noticeable gap between its arrival and outgoing B-52 Stratofortresses. This forced the USAF to consider modified versions of either its F-111 or B-1A stock for the interim - the availability of these airframes allowing for express conversions to a new bomber standard.

Interim Measures, Again

Of the two, the B-1A was selected in October of 1981 and this ultimately begat the B-1B variant - testing would be completed on two of the existing B-1A airframes. The B-1B program officially began on March 23rd, 1983. A crash of one of the aircraft in August of 1984 delayed progress some - the crew capsule ejection system working as designed but the crash still resulting in the death of test pilot Doug Benefield and injuries to two of the three surviving crew. Flight testing was concluded in October of 1985.

By this time, serial production of the B-1B had already commenced (back in 1984) and this continued into 1988 with 100 aircraft delivered to the USAF. Initial Operating Capability (IOC) of the mark occurred in 1986. 1987 marked the first lost of a B-1B when the low-flying aircraft hit a bird - in addition to the four crewmembers aboard were two observers in non-ejecting seats. Three of the six crew (two observers and one standard crewman) died when one of the four ejection seats failed to launch.

The B-1B Over the B-1A

Compared to the B-1A, the B-1B carried all-new flight controls, improved avionics, upgraded Electronic CounterMeasures (ECMs), fixed air inlets (replacing variable types, this reducing maximum speed to Mach 1.25), individual ejection seats (replacing the ejection capsule approach), increased Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW), and RAM (Radar-Absorbent Material) for some base stealth capability. The internal weapon bays (three) were configurable for a variety of munition types including precision ("smart") bombs and cruise missiles as well as non-combat components like extra fuel stores. A non-nuclear bomb-carrying function was eventually integrated following the demise of the Soviet Union and the thawing of East-West relations. B-1Bs were taken off their nuclear duty role in 1991 making the aircraft a full-fledged conventional bomber in the USAF inventory and no longer restricted to just the low-level penetrator/strike role.

Not a Stealth Bomber

The B-1B is not a stealth aircraft as the Lockheed F-117 "Nighthawk" or the Northrop B-2 despite its use of a slim profile and RAM coating. It still relies on low-level flight and speed to bypass or outrun enemy defenses. To help the aircraft in this role, it is equipped with Terrain Following and Terrain Avoidance radar modes for use over land or water. This lets the aircraft "hug" the terrain below while promoting itself as a more difficult target to track/engage. No one Lancer has been shot down as an enemy target in war - recorded losses attributed to accidents and general operational attrition than anything else. The B-1B also holds excellent endurance thanks to the shared cockpit workload and in-flight refueling. It is also the recipient of aviation records including time-to-climb records across three different weight categories.

The North American to Rockwell to Boeing Brand Evolution

The B-1 bomber product was born under the North American Aviation brand label before the merger with Rockwell. From this joining spawned Rockwell International, the brand label most commonly associated with the B-1 Lancer until 2001 when the product fell under Boeing ownership. As such, the B-1B Lancer today is recognized as a Boeing product - a common result of the many mergers seen in the latter decades of the Cold War.

The Current B-1B Stock and Its Future

The USAF did not purchase more than the stated 100 B-1B bombers since the aircraft's introduction. Sixty-two of this stock remain in service as of 2014 and are expected to fulfill their roles into the 2040s. The B-1 never replaced the B-52 and has served alongside it, as well as alongside the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, simply due to the USAF need. Amazingly, the service life of the B-52 is expected to reach into 2040.

Since its inception in 1986, the B-1B has proven an effective warplane but also an expensive and complex one. Its technology-laden design means it is an inherently costly platform and, thus, a regular contender for retirement which each passing budget year. The B-52 has required less over the long run to keep that aged fleet airborne for longer and is another proven battlefield performer - though lacking any stealth capabilities in its design.

The B-1B has been upgraded along several lines to keep it a viable aerial weapons delivery platform for the foreseeable future. Its radar system was upgraded through the Radar Reliability and Maintainability Improvement Program (RRMIP) as reliability of these units became a recurring sticking point in service due to age. The navigation suite was also upgraded as were battlefield situational awareness systems. The cockpit will see a revision to include color Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) added as well as instrumentation upgrades. Work is expected to be completed by 2020.

The B-1R "Regional"

A proposed B-1 upgraded variant is the B-1R ("Regional"). The line would receive air-to-air missile capability on additional external hardpoints, new Pratt & Whitney F119 series turbofan engines, modern radar (including AESA), and increased speed to Mach 2.2 though with reduced range.

Combat History

The B-1B has seen combat action over Iraq (Operation Desert Fox, 1998), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003). It missed out on Operation Desert Storm (1991) for its conventional bombing functionality has not been added by then and engine issues further kept the aircraft from participating. For the offensive against Saddam Hussein's vaunted forces, the B-52 took the place of the B-1B in the conventional bombing role.

Throughout its operational tenure, the B-1 has served with Strategic Air Command, Air Combat Command, the Air National Guard, and with the Air Force Flight Test Center. Two B-1A bombers were claimed as museum showpieces while some eight B-1B series aircraft have also been saved from the scrap heap in the same way. Though stripped of its nuclear-carrying and delivery capability, the remaining B-1Bs in service can very well be retrofitted for the nuclear role once more if needed.

The B-1 is affectionately known as "Bone" for its designation - "B-One".

February 2021 - The United States Air Force has begun formal retirement of some of its B-1B bomber fleet in preparation for the arrival of the B-21 "Raider" currently in development (detailed elsewhere on this site). Seventeen B-1Bs are expected to be retired in this initial phase under a Congressional directive.

The B-1B Lancer Will Rule The Skies For Another 20 Years — At Least

The B-1B Lancer, the backbone of the U.S. strategic bomber force and favorite aeronautical middle finger to North Korea, will dominate the skies through 2040 thanks to a few tweaks by the Air Force.

Aviation Week reported on Oct. 3 that the service branch is in the process of updating “the way it inspects, maintains and repairs” Rockwell International’s venerable supersonic heavy bomber. And thanks to a series of broad structural tests, the service currently “does not anticipate” the need for a formal life extension program to keep Air Force’s fleet of 62 “Bone” bombers scaring the crap out of America’s enemies for the next few decades.

Although the B-1B Lancer first entered service in 1986, the branch has been conducting fatigue testing on the bomber’s fuselage and wings in 2013 to ensure that the aircraft could continue to operate through its original projected lifespan of 2050. While the bombers’ F-101 engines were already subject to a life-extension regimen scheduled to wrap up by January 2019, Aviation Week reports that wing testing is currently 72% complete. And even though fuselage tests are just 20%, the fleet apparently looked intact enough for Brig. Gen. Michael Schmidt to tell Aviation Week the fleet wouldn’t require a “fully fledged” extension program.

This is good news for the Air Force, and not just because of the nuclear threat posed by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Lancers deployed 3,800 munitions during a six-month period against ISIS in Iraq and Syria that ended in February 2016. A year later, in February 2017, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told reporters in Washington that the branch remained “pretty flexible” on returning the Lancer to the U.S. Central Command’s area of operations the following July, Air Force Global Strike Command chief Gen. Robin Rand testified before the Senate Armed Services committee that the Bombers “will be in demand for at least two more decades.”

“[The B-1B Lancer] carries the largest payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the Air Force inventory,” Rand said. “This marks a fantastic capability upgrade, and the associated cockpit upgrades provide the crew with a much more flexible, integrated cockpit.”

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer assigned to 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, takes off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to fly a bilateral mission with two Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) F-15s, Sept. 9, 2017.Photo via DoD

Those updates put the B-1B Lancerin the middle range when it comes to AFGSC’s modernization efforts. The B-52 Stratofortress is in the middle of a full-blown modernization designed to keep the legendary long-range bomber flying for a full century by contrast, the branch seems entirely unconcerned with the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber that went into service in 1997 — so much so that Schmidt told Aviation Week of the branch “ have full-scale fatigue testing going on in that platform.”

Of course, the B-1B Lancer will require some essential upgrades to its weapons and avionics system, on top of the current engine program, in order to forgo a full-blown life extension: With a $210 million projected cost through fiscal year 2022, the Integrated Battle Station (IBS)/Software Block-16 (SB-16) that Rand declared crucial to future operability marks the largest B-1 upgrade program in the aircraft’s history.

And while the Air Force’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 focuses specifically on updating all B-1B squadrons with fully integrated targeting pods, upgraded bomb racks, and increasingly encrypted radio and communications systems, the branch’s proposed $37.2 million budget decrease in the B-1B program is dependent on “deferring development of new sustaining engineering requirements for fuselage crown repair” for the aircraft — a bit alarming, given Schmidt’s optimistic outlook on an aircraft that’s only a fifth of the way through fuselage-fatigue testing.

Despite this, the bottom line is positive: The Air Force plans on keeping the cornerstone of its strategic bomber force intact, and on doing so as quickly and cheaply as possible. And given North Korea’s frustrating bellicosity, a fleet of shiny refurbished Lancers near the Korean peninsula may be just what the doctor ordered.

Jared Kelleris the executive editor of Task & Purpose. His writing has appeared in Aeon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New Republic, Pacific Standard, Smithsonian, and The Washington Post, among other publications. Contact the author here.

The B-1B is an improved variant initiated by the Reagan administration in 1981. The first production B-1 flew in October 1984, and the first B-1B was delivered to Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, in June 1985. Initial operational capability was achieved on October 1, 1986.

A total of 100 B-1B aircraft were built, and t he final B-1B was delivered by Rockwell to the Air Force on May 2, 1988. The aircraft today are based at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota and Dyess AFB in Texas.

The active Air Force inventory today is about 65 B-1B aircraft.

The B-1B Bomber Could Bulk Up on Long-Range Weapons

Two proposed upgrades will allow the bomber to carry nearly 50 percent more missiles.

  • New upgrades could allow the B-1B bomber to carry 40 more missiles, up from the present 24.
  • The upgrades would also allow the bomber to carry a hypersonic weapon.
  • While an improvement, only 7 B-1B bombers are currently ready for action.

As strategic competition with Russia and China increases, the Air Force wants to max out the B-1B&rsquos ability to carry not just more, but larger and more advanced weapons. According to FlightGlobal, the Air Force recently showed off an upgraded B-1B to partners in industry.

The bomber, belonging to the 412th Test Wing, includes an improved middle bomb bay expanded from 15 feet to nearly 22.5 feet. That&rsquos large enough to carry a future hypersonic weapon. Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds of Mach 5 and above, giving enemy forces little time to react.

The second improvement involves carrying weapons externally. The B-1B was designed to carry nuclear-tipped Air Launched Cruise Missiles on external pylons, but doing so would have compromised the bomber&rsquos stealthy design and the Air Force never trained with them. Now the service wants to resurrect that capability, giving the bomber the ability to carry 16 missiles on six external pylons.

A B-1B can already carry 24 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM), and an upgraded B-1B could carry 40 JASSMs. Two B-1Bs launched 19 JASSM missiles against chemical weapons facilities in Syria in April 2018. In the future, just two B-1Bs could launch up to 80 missiles. The B-1 fleet could likely carry an identical number of Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM), a new ship-killing missile based on the JASSM.

All of this sounds great, but the Air Force needs to overhaul the aging B-1B fleet and restore the bomber&rsquos relevancy. Today, only seven of the service&rsquos 62 B-1Bs are "fully mission capable", able to fulfill all of the missions assigned to them. The remaining 55 aircraft are "mission capable"--able to fulfill at least one of their missions--or are grounded. If readiness remains in the single digits, it&rsquos not worthwhile to fund these new upgrades. The Air Force plans to replace the B-1B with the new B-21 Raider bomber sometime in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Update: a previous version of this article referenced the balance of the B-1B fleet, excluding the seven aircraft fully mission capable, as grounded. Thanks to @JollyRo74186570 for the pointing out the error.

The Aging B-1 Bomber Just Won't Die

The Air Force is doing everything it can to keep the Lancer flying until its replacement arrives.

  • The Air Force is carefully plotting the rest of the B-1 bomber&rsquos career.
  • The B-1, which is already more than 30 years old, is scheduled to be replaced by the B-21 Raider bomber starting in the mid- to late-2020s.
  • The Air Force is testing a retired airframe to figure out how much longer it can safely fly the B-1.

The U.S. Air Force believes its fleet of B-1 bombers can still reach their extended retirement date, but not without carefully managing the old planes.

The B-1 bomber, which the Air Force first flew in the 1980s, is long overdue for a replacement. But that won&rsquot come until the B-21 Raider bomber&mdashthe coolest plane we've never actually seen&mdashis ready sometime later this decade.

In the meantime, the Air Force is reducing the number of B-1 bombers and conducting tests to determine how much longer the big jets can fly.

Air Force magazine explains the service is taking several measures to ensure the B-1Bs stay airworthy, like reducing the number of bombers from 62 to 45 and shedding 17 airframes. Boeing produced the last B-1B bomber for the Air Force in 1988, and the fleet has recently suffered spare parts shortages. The retired planes will likely be cannibalized for spare parts to keep the remaining planes flying.

The Air Force is also conducting structural fatigue tests on a retired B-1 bomber wing and airframe. The B-1B was originally designed to fly for 8,000 to 10,000 hours, but the average number of hours on the bomber fleet is 12,000 hours. The Air Force wants to simulate twice that number on the retired &ldquocarcass&rdquo to get an idea of how much longer the planes can safely fly.

The B-1B fleet has suffered serious age-related readiness problems in recent years. In 2019, fewer than 10 of the 62 bombers were ready for combat. That same year, the Air Force also restricted the plane to flying at higher altitudes, in order to relieve the airframes of the stress of low-altitude flight. The Air Force is also considering adding hypersonic weapons to the variety of weapons carried by the B-1B.

10 badass facts about the Boeing (Rockwell) B-1B Lancer

Any fans of the dead sexy Rockwell (Boeing) B-1B Lancer out there? If you’ve ever wondered what makes the B-1 truly “bad to the bone”, here 10 facts that should illustrate why this airplane is so badass.

Fact #1: The Bone carries the largest payload of both guided and unguided munitions in the entire United States Air Force Inventory.

Fact #2: The B-1B’s speed and handling characteristics are more like a fighter, allowing it to seamlessly integrate into large force strike packages.

B-1Bs from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, prior to launch for a Green Flag-West mission.

Fact #3: The Synthetic Aperture Radar aboard the B-1 is capable of tracking, targeting, and engaging moving vehicles, and features both terrain-following and self-targeting modes.

Fact #4: The B-1A was initially developed in the 1970s as a replacement for the B-52.

Fact #5: The B-1A’s top speed was in excess of Mach 2.

Fact #6: The B-1B holds almost 50 world records for speed, payload, range, and time of climb in its class.

Read Next: Bad to the Bone: Fun facts about the Boeing (Rockwell) B-1B Lancer

A B-1B from the 412 TW at Edwards AFB conducts a high-speed flyby during an airshow.

Fact #7: The first B-1B was delivered to Dyess Air Force Base in June 1985. The final B-1B was delivered May 2, 1988.

Fact #8: The B-1B was first used in combat in Operation Desert Fox in December 1998.

A Bone takes off in full blower during Mission Employment Phase of Weapons School.

Fact #9: In 1999, six B-1s were used in Operation Allied Force, delivering more than 20 percent of the total ordnance while flying less than 2 percent of the combat sorties.

Fact #10: During the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, eight Lancers dropped nearly 40 percent of the total ordnance delivered by coalition air force. This included nearly 3,900 JDAMs, or 67 percent of the total.

A Boeing B-1B sits on the ramp at Nellis AFB during sunrise.

First flight Dec. 23, 1974
Span 137 feet (extended), 79 feet (swept aft)
Length 146 feet
Height 34 feet
Gross weight 477,000 pounds
Power plant Four 30,000-plus-pound-thrust General Electric F-101-GE-102 turbofan engines with afterburners
Speed Mach 1.2 at sea level
Crew Four
Operating altitude 30,000-plus feet
Armament Up to 84 Mark 82 conventional 500-pounds bombs, or 30 CBU-87/89/97, or 24 JDAMS, or can be reconfigured for wide range of nuclear bombs
A Boeing B-1B from the 28 BW at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota drops off the tanker and returns to the fight.

* Author Scott Wolff is an accomplished writer and renowned aviation photojournalist. Scott’s area of expertise is military flight operations, drawing on ten years of experience working extensively with all branches of the armed forces. He holds an FAA pilot certificate, the culmination of a life-long passion for flying airplanes. Scott has received military altitude chamber training, emergency egress training, and has logged time in a variety of civilian and military aircraft. He is also a member of the International Society of Aviation Photographers and Nikon Professional Services.

Icons of Aviation History: The B-1 Lancer

The B1-B Lancer nuclear bomber was perhaps the most controversial aircraft ever produced by the US, and was the subject of a Cold War political and military debate that lasted over 20 years.

By the early 1960’s, the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, which controlled America’s nuclear bomber force, was already looking for a replacement for its B-52 Stratofortress. Plans originally called for the B-52 to be replaced by an ultra-fast high-altitude bomber, the B-70 Valkyrie. Improvements in Soviet radar and anti-aircraft Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), however, left high-altitude planes such as the Valkyrie too vulnerable, and the B-70 was cancelled. Instead, the existing B-52s were upgraded with new avionics to improve their capabilities. At the same time, new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) replaced the long-range bomber as the US’s primary method of delivering nuclear weapons.

For a time, it was assumed that the nuclear bomber was no longer necessary, its role having been taken by the ICBM. (One of the reasons for the cancellation of the B-70 had been that manned nuclear bombers were no longer necessary.)

As the Cold War continued, however, American nuclear doctrine solidified around the concept of a “triad”: three independent nuclear weapons systems (ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range strategic bombers) would give the flexibility and survivability needed to effectively retaliate after any Soviet surprise attack. Each element of the Triad had an advantage (and disadvantage) over the others. The ICBMs were very accurate but were increasingly vulnerable to a “first strike”. The submarine-launched missiles were hard to hit in a first strike, but were not as accurate as ICBMs. The bombers had the advantage of being recallable after being launched, but were vulnerable to air defenses. Because of this vulnerability, in the early 1970’s the Air Force again had concerns about the survivability and effectiveness of its B-52 bomber force, and again began plans to replace the Stratofortresses. The proposed new bomber was the B-1 Lancer.

The B-1 was state of the art for its time. Its three internal bomb bays could carry all of the nuclear weapons in the US arsenal to a range of 6000 miles. It had “swing-wing” variable geometry wings, which could be moved forward or backwards for different flight characteristics. Capable of going supersonic, it was faster than the B-52 and, with the swing-wings forward, could take off in a shorter distance. Unlike the earlier B-70, the new B-1 was designed to penetrate the Soviet Union at very low altitude, which would prevent radar-guided SAMs from being able to hit it, and would also prevent fighter interceptors from getting radar locks amidst the ground clutter.

But there were problems both political and military. The spiraling nuclear arms race had produced a large political group inside the US, the “nuclear freeze” movement, which was arguing for an end to the arms race, a diplomatic effort at arms-reduction talks, and an end to more and more bloated military budgets. The B-1 became a particular target of criticism. It was, critics argued, inherently an “attack” plane and would destabilize the arms race. At $150 million per plane in 1970 dollars, it was absurdly expensive. And its primary mission–delivery of nuclear weapons to the USSR–was already being replaced by smaller, cheaper, and more effective nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which could be launched from the ground, from Navy ships, or from airborne B-52s.

Unknown to the nuclear freeze movement at the time, there was also opposition to the B-1 within the military itself. Some Air Force officials once again argued that manned bombers themselves were no longer necessary, as their role was taken over by cruise missiles and by more advanced nuclear ballistic missiles. In particular, the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which could be launched from a B-52 1500 miles away from its target, made it no longer necessary to penetrate Soviet air defenses with manned aircraft in order to deliver nuclear weapons. The Soviets were also already deploying new fighter-interceptors with “look-down/shoot-down” capability, giving them the ability to pick out low-level bombers from the radar ground clutter and hit them with anti-aircraft missiles, making the low-level B-1 just as vulnerable to air defenses as the high-level bombers that it had replaced. Other military officials pointed out that the super-secret “stealth” B-2 bomber, then already approaching production, would perform the same role envisioned for the B-1, far more safely. The B-1 would in effect already be obsolete at its first takeoff, and the money being spent on the project could, they argued, be more effectively spent elsewhere.

By 1976, the B-1 had come to symbolize the entire political issue of military spending and Cold War posturing, and opinions over it broke along mostly partisan lines. The Democratic Party, which favored cuts in military spending and a diplomatic arms-control approach to the Cold War, argued that the B-1 was an unnecessary waste of money, while the Republican Party, which favored increased military spending and an aggressive approach to the Cold War, wanted to go ahead with the project. When Jimmy Carter won the election, the B-1’s fate was sealed. Within a year, the bomber was cancelled.

Four years later, the situation was reversed. In the 1980 election, military spending on the Cold War once again became a political issue, but this time the Republican Ronald Reagan, accusing the Democrats of being “weak on national defense”, won, on a political program of “getting tough with the Russians”. There followed one of the most massive increases of military spending in history (and simultaneous cuts in domestic programs), as Reagan expanded several weapons programs that had begun under Carter and added some of his own. One of these was the B-1, which, though no longer necessary as the B-2 Stealth Bomber was being secretly deployed, had become a political symbol of military power and American “will” in the Cold War. The first B-1B bomber rolled off the assembly line in September 1984. Production continued for the next four years.

In 1989, the Soviet Bloc collapsed, the Cold War came to an abrupt end, and the B-1B Lancer found itself without a mission. When the “War on Terror” broke out in 2001, the B-1, designed for delivering thermonuclear weapons against a military superpower, was dropping conventional guided bombs on tribesmen in Afghanistan who had no effective anti-aircraft capabilities.

As of 2015, there are about 60 B-1B’s still remaining on active service in the Air Force. There are plans to upgrade them, increasing their conventional bomb loads (and thereby reducing their range), and turning them into “regional” bombers.

A B1-B Lancer, produced in 1984, is on display in the Cold War Gallery at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton OH.

For the First Time Ever, a B-1 Bomber Landed Inside the Arctic Circle

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber made history last week when it landed at a remote air base north of the Arctic Circle. The bomber, flying with an escort of four Swedish Gripen fighters, touched down at Norway's Bodø Air Station for refueling before departing again. The layover marked the farthest north the B-1B has ever operated.

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The bomber, nicknamed "Dark Knight" of the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, 7th Bomb Wing, conducted a "warm pit refuel" at Bodø, a process that allows the crew to remain in the cockpit as the plane is gassed up, according to Stars and Stripes. Warm pit refueling minimizes the time an aircraft spends on the ground, allowing it to quickly take off again.

Bodø, a Royal Norwegian Air Force base, is NATO's northernmost air base. Norwegian F-16 Fighting Falcons of 132 Luftving (Air Wing) are parked at the western edge of the base 24/7 to respond to potential threats to Norwegian airspace, primarily from warplanes from neighboring Russia.

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“What we thought was a very sizable load of structural issues” ended up being a “fraction” of issues to deal with, he added.

Those structural issues have become particularly visible in the last 16 months, with the entire B-1 fleet grounded twice for mechanical issues. In June 2018, the fleet was grounded for two weeks following the discovery of an issue with the Lancer’s ejection seat in March 2019, another ejection seat issue grounded the fleet for almost a month. Members of Congress have since expressed serious concerns about the B-1’s readiness rates, a number that was just more than 50 percent in 2018.

Ray expressed optimism about the mechanical issues, saying that any fallout from the ejection seat shutdowns will be completed by the end of October, which is “must faster” than the service predicted.

The second reason Ray believes there’s still life in the B-1? The idea that there are modifications to the Lancer that would add new capabilities relevant in an era of great power competition.

In August, the Air Force held a demonstration of how the B-1 could be modified to incorporate four to eight new hypersonic weapons by shifting the bulkhead forward from a bomb bay on the aircraft, increasing the size inside the plane from 180 inches to 269 inches. That change allows the loading of a Conventional Rotary Launcher, the same system used inside the B-52, onto the B-1.

According to an Air Force release, first reported by, the bulkhead change is temporary, giving the B-1 flexibility based on its mission. Overall, the internal bay could be expanded from 24 to 40 weapons, per the service. In addition, the testers proved new racks could be attached to hardpoints on the wings.

“The conversation we’re having now is how we take that bomb bay [and] put four potentially eight large hypersonic weapons on there,” Ray said. “Certainly, the ability to put more JASSM-ER [Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range] or LRASM [Long Range Anti-Ship Missile] externally on the hardpoints as we open those up. So there’s a lot more we can do.”

Said Venable: “I think it’s a great idea. Increasing our bomber force end strength, we’re not going to get there just by buying B-21[s] and retiring the B-1s.”

“Adding a new rotary [launcher that] he was talking about, just behind the bulkhead of the cockpit of the B-1, freeing up the pylons to actually manifest more longer-range weapons and give it a greater penetrating strike capability — those are great takeaways from this particular event,” the analyst added.

Watch the video: Wheels on Media. Lancer GSR (December 2021).