B-1B: Still Bad to the B-ONE

B-1B: Still Bad to the B-ONE

Report and photos by George Karavantos

June 12, 2022

Near Abilene city, west of Fort Worth, Texas lays one of the biggest bases of USAF. Dyess AFB is the home of the 7th Bomb Wing, one of the two only Bomb Wings equipped with B-1B Lancers. George Karavantos had the opportunity to visit it and brings us the report.

The early beginning:

The heavy bombers seemed like there were headed for extinction in the 1960s, with development projects cancelled like the B-70 in favour of long-range strategic missiles. However, the US Air Force still felt a need for the type, and in the 1970s and 1980s pushed its development for a new heavy bomber. After due consideration of proposals from Boeing, General Dynamics, and North American Rockwell (which later became Rockwell International and now is part of Boeing), USAF awarded the contract for the “B-1” bomber to Rockwell on 5 June 1970, while General Electric was awarded a contract on the same day for the F101 afterburning bypass turbojet engine that would power the aircraft.

The Air Force wanted 240 production aiframes, with the last of them to be delivered in 1979. The initial flight of the first B-1 prototype was on 23 December 1974. However by the time the first flight of the fourth prototype took place, the B-1 seemed already dead. The 1970s saw a push for disarmament, and production of the B-1 was cancelled by President Jimmy Carter on 30 June 1977.

A resurgence of tensions with the Soviets and other factors led to the resurrection of the B-1 as the new B-1B, which was promoted as a cruise-missile carrier though it still retained its free-fall nuclear bombing capability. The second and fourth B-1A prototypes were to be used for B-1B development, with the fourth built up as the B-1B pre-production prototype.

The second prototype was lost in a crash on 29 August 1984, killing the pilot, Rockwell chief test pilot Doug Benefield and badly injuring the rest of the crew. Despite the accident, the program went forward. The first productionaircraft performed its first flight on 18 October 1984, with initial service delivery on 29 June 1985. 100 B-1B Lancers were produced with the last one being delivered by the end of the decade, equipping five Bomb Wings.

The Lancer initially proved very controversial in service. There were a number of losses from accidents, along with high-profile groundings due to such problems as fuel leaks. Even after the worst problems were worked out, the bomber’s availability rate was low, ground crews admitting that the big, complicated machine was maintenance-intensive. As if to add to the USAF’s embarrassment, the B-1B did not see combat service during the Gulf War in 1991. Instead, the B-52 performed all the heavy bomber strikes, despite the fact that the B-1B had in principle a conventional attack capability.

In fact the reason that the B-1B didn’t go into action during the Gulf War was primarily because USAF reserved the aircraft for nuclear strike, where its superior ability to penetrate enemy airspace made it preferable to the B-52. The B-1B’s conventional strike capability was rudimentary, and that mission was better performed by other platforms. Unfortunately, that policy led to more criticism by the US Congress.

As a consequence, USAF focused on improving the Lancer’s conventional strike capability, beginning the Conventional Munitions Upgrade Program (CMUP) in 1993. CMUP has been implemented as a series of “block” upgrades which lasted until 2003 and transformed the beast into a more versatile and modernized weapon platform.

The B-1B finally went into combat in December 1998, as part of the four-day series of attacks on Iraq designated Operation Desert Fox, performing six sorties and dropping iron bombs. It went back into action just a few months later in the spring of 1999, as part of the NATO air offensive against Serbia over the fighting in Kosovo, codenamed Operation Allied Force. The Lancer performed excellent service during Operation Enduring Freedom, the Afghanistan campaign in 2001-2002. During the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom, eight B-1Bs dropped nearly 40% of the total tonnage delivered by coalition air forces. This included nearly 3,900 JDAMs, or 67 percent of the total. The Lancer was heavily involved in Operation Iraq Freedom, the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Although B-1Bs only flew 2% of the sorties, they dropped 2,100 JDAMs, or half the total expended.

As the conflict in Iraq stretched out, the Bone (B-one as it is commonly known) became a highly preferred weapon, in effect a strategic bomber operating in the tactical close support role. It could carry a heavy war load of guided munitions and fly over the area of interest for long periods of time, dispensing bombs on request for pinpoint strikes on targets. Given the large bomb load and the aircraft’s endurance, which substantially reduced the need for in-flight refuelling, it was surprisingly cost-effective as a tactical support weapon. Certainly the type has more than lived down its early disappointments as a conventional strike aircraft.

“The Bone is a big bird, but is actually quite manoeuvrable. The weapon bays are all internal, so we don’t have any additional drag, even when fully loaded. The jet enjoys flying fast and low, contrary to the picture some people may have of the flight profile of a large bomber”, told us one of the pilots of the Lancer.

One problem that showed up in the Afghanistan and Iraq operations was that B-1 aircrews had no way of directly confirming a target themselves before weapons release, requiring the crew to call in a fighter to check the target, a process that was inefficient and still prone to deadly errors. With the B-1B continuing in intensive combat, the Air Force set up a fast-track program to qualify the Lockheed Martin Sniper XR targeting pod on a B-1B, mounted on one of the forward fuselage pylons, with the pod going into service in late 2008.

The downfall:

While bombers like the B-52, B-1 and B-2 have proven to be highly valuable assets in the widespread small wars that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, these conflicts have not required great fleets of such aircraft. In 2002, the Air Force decided to withdraw 33 of the 91 B-1Bs surviving in service. Eight of the 33 were used as static display pieces, with the other 24 sent to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. Ten of the 24 were put in storage, while the other 14 were cannibalized for spares.

In addition the fully operational B-1Bs were rapidly reducing in numbers and facing serious signs of fatigue. The reasons the B-1 fell into such low availability rates had to do with the abusive operation of the aircraft coupled by a series of structural problems that overwhelmed maintainers, according to USAF B-1 program manager William Barnes.

“The B-1 has been used hard, and not in the way intended”. Former Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein explained in September 2019 that the B-1 was used in Afghanistan and Iraq as a high-speed close air support platform, flying for long periods at high altitudes with its swing wings swept forward, until getting a call to descend to low level and support troops needing air support. However, the aircraft was designed as a strategic penetrator, flying low and fast, with wings swept back. Flying with the wings extended for long periods, while carrying heavy loads, put years of heavy extra stress on the swing mechanism and attach points.

To stop rapidly grinding down the B-1’s remaining service life, the Air Force decided to take it out of the close air support mission. Throughout 2020, the Lancers have been limited to bomber task force missions, conducting short-notice, short-duration deployments to Europe, the Pacific, and the Middle East.

The number of B-1B bases was reduced from five to two. These are Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota and Dyess AFB in Texas. There were some observers who suspected that the drawdown in B-1B stocks was just a prelude to phasing the aircraft out completely.

The fleet of the B-1B was once again cut down last year when Congress cleared the way for the Air Force to reduce the B-1B fleet from 62 aircraft to 45.

Of these 17 retired aircraft, 13 have gone to AMARG, where four (85-0066, 85-0077, 85-0081, 86-0115) will be put in Type 2000 (reclaimable) storage. The other four were used for ground training/testing or as museum pieces.

What the future holds:

The B-21 is expected to be delivered in sufficient numbers by 2031 to permit the rest of the B-1s to retire well into the next decade. Since then, the B-1B has to stay a lethal and versatile, multi-mission weapon system. For this reason further upgrades were being planned. In 2014, the Air Force began an upgrade program, run by Boeing, on the B-1B fleet to install an “Integrated Battle Station”, which includes:

  • Replacement of two cockpit monochrome displays with four colour displays featuring moving-map capability and a new “Central Integrated Test System”, with a resident colour display in the rear cockpit.
  • The secure Link 16 / Fully Integrated Data Link (FIDL).
  • Replacement of the AN/APQ-164 radar with the Northrop Grumman “Scalable Agile Beam Radar – Global Strike (SABR-GS)”. SABR-GS is a derivative of the AN/APG-83 SABR developed for the F-16 fighter, but it is about three times bigger.
  • Radar sustainability and capability upgrades will provide a more reliable system and may be upgraded in the future to include an ultra high-resolution capability and automatic target recognition.
  • Munitions upgrade, including a new “multiple ejector rack (MER)” for the 225-kilogram JDAM, allowing the B-1B to carry 48 JDAMs; it was previously limited to 15. There is also work towards carriage of the 112-kilogram (250-pound) “Small Diameter Bomb”, a lightweight GPS-guided glide bomb; the Bone will be able to carry up to 144 such munitions.

(The Air Force is also interested in a modernized defensive countermeasures system, replacement of the onboard diagnostics computer; and replacement of the inertial navigation system).

Epilogue:

The Rockwell B-1B Lancer has become a mainstay of intercontinental strategic combat operations for the past two decades, being worked hard in the skies over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya as well as supporting the Continuous Bomber Presence in the Pacific. It has developed into a very useful all-round conventional precision striker. The Air Force is now planning to replace the B-1and the B-2, with the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider flying wing bomber, with the B-1 to be out of service no later than 2036. That’s a long time, and obviously plans may change.

Ironically, the B-52H is slated to stay in service until mid-century, since it’s just the most cost-effective delivery platform, as long as it doesn’t have to confront adversary air defences. Since then the Bone will be serving USAF in what it does best: Fly low and fast!

Dyess AFB:

Dyess AFB was established in 1942 as Abilene Army Air Base (AAB). The base is named after Lt Col William Edwin Dyess, a native of Albany, Texas, who was captured by the Japanese on Bataan in April 1942. Dyess escaped in April 1943 and fought with guerilla forces on Mindanao until evacuated by submarine in July 1943. During retraining in the United States, his P-38 Lightning caught fire in flight on 23 December 1943 near Burbank, CA. He refused to bail out over a populated area and died in the crash of his P-38 in a vacant lot.

Dyess AFB is home to the 7th Bomb Wing, which consists of two squadrons, the 9th and 28th Bomb Squadrons which fly the B-1B. In addition, the 28th Bomb Squadron is the Air Force “schoolhouse” for all B-1B aircrew members.

7th BW:

The 7 BW is one of only two B-1B strategic Bomb Wings in the United States Air Force, the other being the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.

Its origins date to the 1918 establishment of the 1st Army Observation Group (later 7th Bombardment Group), one of the 15 original combat air groups formed by the United States Army before World War II.

In 1997, the Wing assumed responsibility for all B-1B initial qualification and instructor upgrade training for Air Combat Command. On 1 April 1997, the Wing became again the 7th Bomb Wing when the C-130 airlift mission transferred to Air Mobility Command (AMC). Since 2000, the 7th Bomb Wing has provided bombing, training and combat support to combatant commanders.

9th BS:

Formed in June 1917, the 9th is one of the oldest squadron in the Air Force. During World War I, the squadron was the first American night reconnaissance squadron to be organized. It was equipped with the Rockwell B-1B Lancer since October 1993. It assumed responsibility for all B-1B initial qualification and instructor upgrade training for Air Combat Command. Since 2000, it has provided bombing, airlift support, training and combat support to combatant commanders.

28th BS:

The 28th is one of the oldest and most decorated units in the United States Air Force, being organized as the 28th Aero Squadron on 22 June 1917 at Camp Kelly, Texas. It carried out B-29 bombardment missions over North Korea during the Korean War. During the Cold War, it served as a Boeing B-47 Stratojet and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress squadron as part of Strategic Air Command.

The 28th flies the Rockwell B-1B Lancer since 1993. It is the largest bomb squadron in the Air Force. The squadron’s mission is to provide all B-1B initial qualification, requalification and instructor upgrade training for Global Strike Command.

Interesting B-1B Facts:

– The B-1B can fly on only two engines if necessary, and can even stay in the air on one if most of the fuel is dumped.

– There are small moveable vanes made of composites alongside the nose, with an anhedral droop of 30 degrees. These are the “structural mode control system (SMCS)” foreplanes. They were fitted because the long B-1B fuselage tends to flex fore-and-aft in low level flight.

– Minimum sweep is 15 degrees and maximum sweep is 67.5 degrees. The junction where the wing sweeps into the wing glove features a “seal” to ensure aerodynamic cleanliness. The sealing system was derived from that developed for the European swing-wing Panavia Tornado strike fighter / interceptor, and features an inflatable bag covered with “fingers”.

– The wing has lift-enhancement devices for relatively short take-offs with a full load, including seven-segment full-span extensible leading-edge slats and six-segment trailing-edge Fowler-type flaps. There are no ailerons, with four spoilers on the top of each wing used to provide roll control and they can be used as speedbrakes.

– The B-1B’s “Fuel & Center Of Gravity Management Subsystem (FCGMS)” shifts fuel from one tank to another to maintain trim when the aircraft changes the sweep of its wings.

– There is a midair refuelling socket in the nose, just forward of the windshield. The position of the socket allows the bomber’s flight crew to keep an eye on a tanker’s refuelling boom. The top of the nose is painted with a white “fishbone” pattern to help a tanker boom operator locate the bomber’s refuelling socket at night.

– There is an auxiliary power unit (APU) mounted between the engines in each pod, primarily to start the engines, though the APUs can also be used for ground power. The APUs allows a quick start-up of the engines so the bomber can get off the runway in a hurry. There’s a switch on the nosewheel gear that can start up the APUs and the engines if needed. A single APU can fire up all four engines.

– The engines have fixed inlets, instead of the variable inlets of the B-1A. Although the B-1B’s fixed inlets cut the high-altitude speed to Mach 1.25, they raised its low-level speed from the B-1A’s Mach 0.85 to Mach 0.92. The B-1B’s inlets are also designed to shield the engine fans from radar to improve stealth. The inlets feature a de-icing system.

– One of the interesting minor details of the B-1B is that the Bone was originally delivered with “turkey feathers” shroud around the variable engine exhaust. The shroud was removed in the 1990s as a weight and maintenance reduction measure, leaving the variable exhaust actuators exposed.

– The B-1B holds almost 50 world records for speed, payload, range, and time of climb in its class. The National Aeronautic Association recognized the B-1B for completing one of the 10 most memorable record flights for 1994. The most recent records were made official in 2004.

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George Karavantos
Photojournalist at Aviation Photography Digest
George Karavantos is from Athens, Greece. His love with military aviation started at the age of 10 when he accidentally read a Greek aviation magazine. Since then, he never stopped reading about fighter aircraft and taking photos of them. He was too tall to become a fighter pilot, so he became an airline pilot. Nowadays he is a Captain and a Flight Instructor on the A320 aircraft. Despite his profession, military aviation will always be his obsession.
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