Amid the hype of the B-2 Spirit, otherwise known as the Stealth Bomber, a quite different strategic bomber emerged from the United States in the late 1980s. Nicknamed “the bone” it stands in contrast to the B-2 in almost every way. While it lacks the stealth technology, it more than makes up for it with its thunderous supersonic speed and handling characteristics that make it more like a fighter than a traditional bomber. It is often referred to as the workhorse of the U.S bomber fleet – this is the B-1 Lancer.
Over thirty years have passed since the B-1 was introduced to the U.S Airforce. This is by no means a new kid on the block but has played a back seat role to the more illustrious aircraft in the U.S fleet. But that should take absolutely nothing away from the B-1 – it is an astonishing aircraft capable of carrying an absurdly large amount of weaponry at a top speed of Mach 1.25 – (1,335 km/h – 830 mph).
But it also faced a long, troubled road to its introduction in 1986. Cancelled not once, but twice, the B-1 Lancer program sometimes seemed like it was dead in the water. If there’s one thing clear about the B-1, it is a belligerent survivor.
From High to Low
As U.S technology developed through the 1950s, their focus settled on high-altitude bombers. This was seen as the only way to evade Soviet MiG fighters below, and for a while, it worked with the Lockheed U-2 cruising imperiously over Soviet airspace. But by the end of the decade, things were beginning to change.
Improvements in Soviet surface-to-air missiles meant that the U.S’ untroubled flight paths were now very much in range. This stark example of this came with the 1960 downing of a U2 over the Soviet Union and the subsequent parading of its pilot Gary Powers to the world media. A new approach was required, the U.S knew they needed to go from high to low.
The B-70 Valkyrie, which had been in development since the mid-1950s, was eventually scrapped because it no longer fit the bill, and while the B-52 was rugged and dependable, its strength certainly didn’t lie with low, fast-flying.
A new aircraft would be needed. An aircraft that could combine the enormous payload capacity of the B-52 and the supersonic speed of the Convair B-58.
A flurry of studies followed throughout the 1960s as developers searched for the right blend of speed and power. To compound things further there was the question of whether the U.S Airforce actually needed nuclear strike capabilities in the era of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The Airforce believed it did, but Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara disagreed and the project, which by that point was known as Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA) was cancelled.
When Richard Nixon was elected to office in 1969, AMSA – which had jokingly become “America’s Most Studied Aircraft” to some – was immediately reestablished and the Air Force issued a request for proposals in November of the same year.
In January 1970 proposals were received by North American Rockwell, Boeing and General Dynamic, with the Rockwell design edging out the others. Initially, this was simply for a prototype aircraft, but the broad plan was to eventually have over 200 B-1s in operation by the end of the decade – which was wildly optimistic as I will get to shortly.
On 23rd December 1973, the first prototype B-1A took to the skies, with three more quickly emerging. But costs were already spiralling upwards and would soon be a major point of contention. In 1970, the estimated cost of each aircraft was $40 million ($267 million today), but just five years later that had risen to $70 million ($468 million today).
The Second Cancellation
As it often seems to be the case in politics, the B-1 became a hugely partisan issue. Republicans were all for it, while the Democrats stood opposed to it. During his campaigning for the 1976 U.S Election, Jimmy Carter went as for to say,
“The B-1 bomber is an example of a proposed system which should not be funded and would be wasteful of taxpayers’ dollars.”
Those working on the B-1 must have cringed on election night as Jimmy Carter became the 39th President of the United States and the entire program was quickly put on review. It is worth pointing out at this point that this was exactly the period when stealth technology was emerging – albeit quietly and secretly. The enticing prospect of an “invisible” aircraft waiting in the wings no doubt weighed against the B-1 with its rapidly expanding cost. By 1977 the 20-year cost of a single B-1 had risen even further to $100 million ($669 million) and the introduction of the new AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile which could be fired from a B-52 and had a huge 2,400 km (1,500 miles) range led many to again question the exact purpose of the B-1.
In June 1977, President Carter announced that the B-1 would be cancelled for a second time, with the U.S instead focusing on ICBMs and improved B-52s carrying AGM-86s. The announcement did not come with any information about the impending stealth technology, but that no doubt also played a part.
Despite the cancellation of the project, test flights continued with prototypes for the next four years and involved seventy flights totalling 378 hours. A top speed of Mach 2.22 (2, 716 km/h – 1,687 mph) was reached during testing, a speed that even the next generation B-1s would never reach.
The election of Ronald Reagon in 1980 saw the fate of this troubled aircraft tilt once again in its favour, but in truth Soviet actions around the world also played a decisive factor. The involvement of the USSR in Afghanistan, Cuba and even Angola showed the U.S that their long-held fear of the spread of communism was taking effect. Up until that point the U.S strategy had been one of containment, rather the need to back up other countries should they be invaded. Suddenly the U.S needed to face up to some glaring limitations, and with the B-2 Spirit still some way off, perhaps they really did need a low altitude supersonic bomber after all.
In January 1982, the U.S government placed an order for 100 B-1s at a combined cost of $2.2 billion ($5.9 billion today) but with it came several changes – that effectively created the B-1B. Overall speed was lowered (although low-level flying speed increased slightly from Mach 0.85 to 0.92 (1,049 km/h/652mph to 1.1.38km/h/705mph). The maximum take-off weight increased from 216,000 kg (477,000 pounds) to 179,000 kg (395,000 pounds) to allow for external weapons to be carried. The first, new and improved B-1 took flight on 18th October 1984 and two years later they officially entered service. They were spectacularly late for the party, but they had finally arrived and up until 1988, 100 B-1Bs rolled off the production line.
It had taken over 25 years of studies, developments and the inevitable political merry go round, but finally, the U.S Airforce had their low-altitude strategic bomber. The aircraft comes with a swept-wing design, meaning its wings point backwards rather than straight across. And these wings are also adjustable and can be shifted from 15 degrees to 67.5 degrees. The forward wing configuration is used for take-off, landings, and high-altitude maximum cruise speed, while during high subsonic and supersonic flight, the wings are generally set in the aft configuration (with the wings closer to the tail).
It is 45 metres (146 ft) in length and has a wingspan of 42 metres (137 ft) when fully extended but this comes down to 24 metres (79 ft) when they are swept back to their extreme. The B-1 is powered by four General Electric F101-GE-102 afterburning turbofan engines, each producing 17,390 lbf thrust each dry (without afterburner) and 30,780 lbf with afterburner (which is the additional combustion component used on some jets). It comes with a crew of 4, an aircraft commander, pilot, offensive systems officer, and defensive Systems Officer.
The main computer onboard the B-1 is the IBM AP-101, which was also used on the Space Shuttle Orbiter. One of the most exciting components included on the B-1 is the terrain-following system which essentially scans the area ahead of the aircraft and provides pitch input to help the pilot hug the terrain as closely as possible, sometimes flying as low as 60 metres (200 ft) above the ground.
Its combat range is a mammoth 5,543 km (3,444 miles) – which is roughly the distance from Denver, Colorado to Hawaii and can be refuelled mid-air for those ultra-distance missions. Considering it was primarily designed as a low-level bomber it does have an impressive service ceiling of 18,000 metres (60,000 ft).
As I mentioned right at the start of the video this aircraft can carry a hefty amount of ordinance – the equivalent of two school buses if you recall. The B-1 comes with 8 external hardpoints for ordnance (a hardpoint is essentially where you attach a missile) and capacity of 23,000 kg (50,000 pounds). Inside the aircraft, things get even bigger, and the B-1’s 3 internal bomb bays can accommodate 34,000 kg (75,000 pounds) of ordnance. The combined weight of all this is roughly the same as ten elephants – and if you need reminding, it can do this while breaking the sound barrier.
Despite its emergence in 1984 and full introduction two years later, it took another 18 years for the B-1 to see its first combat operation. When it finally appeared the USSR was teetering on the brink, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 heralded in a very different world than what many, including the designers of the B-1, had anticipated.
The first Iraq War began in 1990 but the B-1 was not used because it had been specifically designed as a nuclear bomber – and they weren’t looking to completely obliterate the Middle Eastern Country. Even if they had been available it’s unlikely they would have taken part after an accident involving a B-1 in December 1990 which led to a 50-day grounding of the fleet while the accident was investigated.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed in 1995 meant that such aircraft were now obsolete and this led to a massive re-design of the B-1 to make it START compliant. The bomb bay was divided into two and the software included on the aircraft was changed to accompany conventional weaponry.
The first B-1 mission occurred in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox, the little-remembered four-day bombing extravaganza which took place against Iraq in response to the country’s apparent refusal to allow weapons inspectors into the country.
They were back again during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and also played a part in Operation Enduring Freedom as the U.S smashed their way in Afghanistan in search of Osama Bin Laden. It continued to be a presence in both countries for several years, and also took part in bombing raids in Libya in 2011 and Syria from 2014. During the bloody Battle of Kobane in Syria, B-1s dropped 660 bombs over 5 months in support of Kurdish forces, killing an estimated 1,000 ISIS fighters – though how they can be so sure of these numbers I’m not quite so sure. But either way, the B1s dropped an awful lot of bombs during this period.
The Clock is Ticking
Just as with the B-2 Spirit, the B-1’s immediate role is under threat as a young pretender waits in the wings. The B-21 Raider – or Stealth Bomber mark II as it seems to be, looks set to arrive on the scene in 2025 and will likely usher the B-1 fleet to the sidelines. The U.S Airforce has already set a tentative date of 2036 for the aircraft’s retirement, but that is certainly not set in stone.
The costs surrounding the B-1 are quite extraordinary, and they go much further than just manufacturing. Each flight hour requires roughly 48.4 hours of repair. A 12-hour mission costs an unbelievable $720,000 as of 2010 ($858,200 today) in fuel, repairs, and other needs. These are big numbers, but still considerably less than what it costs to fly the B-2.
From the very get-go, this has been an unloved and compared to the B-2 Spirit, perhaps even undervalued aircraft. Like so much military hardware that appeared during the ’70s and ’80s, many of which we’ve covered here on Megaprojects, its design and purpose simply didn’t match the world that it arrived in. Instead of low-level missions deep inside Soviet territory, bristling with nuclear warheads, the B-1 first found itself hampered because of its nuclear design, then flying missions predominantly over the Middle East, often hitting targets that had already been softened up first. In today’s day and age, it’s doubtful whether an aircraft with such a capacity and speed is even really needed.
It may seem like the B-1 Lancer plays second fiddle to the iconic B-2, but it is still a record-breaker and holds 61 different Federation Aeronautique International world records for speed, payload, distance, and time-to-climb in different aircraft weight classes. It may have flaws but it remains unmatched in many aspects. This unloved, delayed and often sidelined monster deserves some recognition. The dazzling sexy aircraft might get the attention, but it is the brutish workhorses that get the job done.