In 1964, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) sought a new bomber that could fly at supersonic speeds at high altitude and at high subsonic speeds at low altitude. However, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara found crewed bombers unnecessary as a nuclear deterrent. Moreover, the Vietnam War was ramping up, so McNamara limited the bomber project to studies and component development.
With a widening war, the strategic, fast, high-flying bomber project stalled in the 1960s, while the B-52—which excelled in a low-altitude role—remained relevant on bombing missions in Vietnam.
However, defense experts remained concerned about more advanced Soviet radar and surface-to-air missiles, making low altitude penetration missions riskier. Therefore, the USAF picked up again the task of creating a supersonic bomber to replace the aged B-52.
Under President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird authorized the B-1A project in April 1969. A B-1A prototype built by Rockwell International completed its first test flight on December 23, 1974. Four prototypes of the long-range, high speed—flying in excess of Mach 2 at high altitude and Mach 1.2 at low altitude—strategic bomber were developed and tested.
Unfortunately, the estimated unit cost for the B-1A increased from $40 million in 1970 to $100 million by 1977. Additionally, short-range cruise missiles had been developed that could be launched from B-52s. President Jimmy Carter canceled the B-1A program on June 30, 1977, before production began to reduce the defense budget. However, flight testing of the prototypes continued through 1981.
Once again, a change in presidential administrations saved the B-1. President Ronald Reagan approved an improved variant, the B-1B, in October 1981. He wanted to push the Soviet Union to its financial limits, and a new strategic bomber would cause the Soviets to reinforce their air defense network. “Reagan bolstered the U.S. military might to ruin the Soviet economy, and he achieved his goal,” said Gennady Gerasimov, the top spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry during the 1980s.
The B-1B was slower and less expensive than the B-1A. According to the USAF website, among the key changes were “an additional structure to increase payload by 74,000 pounds, an improved radar and reduction of the radar cross-section by an order of magnitude. The changes led to a reduction in maximum speed to Mach 1.2.”
As modified, the B-1B Lancer was built for “high-speed, low-altitude penetration missions,” according to the USAF, which ordered 100 B-1Bs in 1982. A B-1B took flight on October 18, 1984, and flew at 60,000 feet with a range of more than 7,000 miles. The first B-1B was delivered to Dyess Air Force Base (KDYS) in Texas in June 1985, achieving initial operational capability on October 1, 1986. The final B-1B was delivered May 2, 1988.
The USAF B-1B fact sheet states the “B-1B’s blended wing/body configuration, variable-geometry wings and turbofan afterburning engines combine to provide long range, maneuverability and high speed while enhancing survivability. Forward wing settings are used for takeoff, landings, air refueling and in some high-altitude weapons employment scenarios. Aft wing sweep settings—the main combat configuration—are typically used during high subsonic and supersonic flight, enhancing the B-1B’s maneuverability in the low- and high-altitude regimes. The B-1B’s speed and superior handling characteristics allow it to seamlessly integrate in mixed force packages. These capabilities, when combined with its substantial payload, excellent radar targeting system, long loiter time and survivability, make the B-1B a key element of any joint/composite strike force.”
During its first decade, the B-1B was primarily a nuclear deterrence bomber, serving as the third leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. While the B-1B Lancer was designed originally as a strategic nuclear bomber capable of flying swiftly at low altitudes to avoid Soviet early warning radars, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union changed its mission beginning in 1994.
The USAF adapted the B-1B Lancer to carry conventional munitions; updates improved the aircraft’s ability to precision-deliver conventional munitions, including advanced targeting electronics, and additional fixtures necessary to deliver a large number of bombs. “Since then [the B-1B] has been used extensively in close air support and tactical bombing missions,” according to Boeing, which acquired Rockwell International on August 1, 1996.
The conversion to conventional armaments began in November 2007 under the original START treaty and was completed in March 2011 under the second START treaty.
Nearly 40 years after the first B-1B was produced, the aircraft remains “a highly versatile, multi-mission weapon system,” according to the USAF. For the next several years, the B-1B will lead the U.S. long-range bomber force and is capable of carrying the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons.
According to Boeing, the B-1B “holds 61 world records for speed, payload, distance” and time of climb in its class.
During Operation Desert Shield in the 1990s, the U.S. military called almost every combat aircraft in its arsenal into action—it was the largest U.S. military mobilization since Vietnam. Similarly, during Operation Desert Storm, the USAF utilized the B-52 heavily. Because of its nuclear deterrence role, the B-1B was conspicuously absent during both operations—together known as the Gulf War.
The B-1 saw its first use in combat to support the mission against Iraq during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. B-1Bs penetrated Iraqi air defenses and destroyed Republican Guard barracks. This operation validated the conventional role of the aircraft and its ability to join in a force package.
In March 1999, NATO forces began an air campaign against Serbia to end the human rights abuses against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. Code-named Operation Allied Force, this effort ended 78 days later with the withdrawal of Serbian army and paramilitary forces from Kosovo. Six B-1s were used in the operation; they delivered more than 20 percent of the total ordnance while flying less than 2 percent of the combat sorties.
During the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism, which began on October 7, 2001, and lasted until December 31, 2014), eight B-1Bs dropped nearly 40 percent of the total tonnage delivered by coalition air forces. This included nearly 3,900 (67 percent of the total) joint direct attack munitions (JDAM), a guidance kit that converts unguided bombs into all-weather precision-guided munitions.
In Operation Iraqi Freedom, B-1B aircraft flew less than 1 percent of the combat missions while dropping 40 percent of the weapons and 70 percent of the precision-guided JDAM weapons.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, B-1Bs were used in bombing, show of force, overwatch, and reconnaissance missions. In Afghanistan in 2007, B-1Bs also flew a search and rescue operation after Taliban forces shot down a NATO helicopter. B-1Bs flew 1,200 combat sorties, executed 3,000 tactical air requests, intervened in 432 ground engagements, and dropped 700 weapons during 2011.
During the 2011 intervention in Libya, B-1Bs flew from Ellsworth Air Force Base (KRCA) in South Dakota to bomb Libyan targets—the first time B-1Bs flew a combat mission from the continental U.S.
In Syria, B-1Bs were used against both ISIS and Syrian government targets. In April 2018, B-1Bs launched 19 JASSM cruise missiles because of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks. This was the first use of the JASSM, which added to the B-1B’s already extended strike range.
During these conflicts, the B-1B was used for precision bombing attacks, including close air support. Because of its range, it remained on station longer than the fighter-bombers used by the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy—although not as long as many drones.
The B-1B’s Future
By early 2021, the 100 B-1Bs built by Rockwell in the 1980s had been reduced to 62 aircraft. The USAF retired about three dozen in the early 2000s and lost several others to accidents. Heavy use by the U.S. Central Command on close air support for ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan—which the B-1 wasn’t built to do—took a toll. In 2017, the USAF reported that only half of the 62 bombers were combat-ready. In 2019, Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) stated only seven were fully mission-capable.
In a September 24, 2021 article in Air & Space Forces magazine, the AFGSC stated it had “retired 17 B-1B bombers from its inventory, leaving a fleet of 45 aircraft,” which are located at Ellsworth AFB and Dyess AFB.
The divestiture supported the USAF’s “efforts to modernize America’s bomber fleet” as authorized by Congress. The article stated a “smaller fleet will allow the remaining aircraft to receive more attention, spare parts, and generally achieve a higher level of readiness,” according to AFGSC’s director of logistics and engineering, Brig. Gen. Kenyon K. Bell.
According to Bell, “The cost avoidance of operating the retired jets will also help pay for capability upgrades.” The Air Force indicated that “many of the aircraft had severe structural fatigue, especially at the wing-pivot points, because the jets were flying high and slow instead of low and fast with wings swept, as they were designed to do.” Bell also said, “The aircraft we retired would have taken between $10 million and $30 million per aircraft to get back to a status quo fleet in the short term until the B-21 comes online.” Most B-1B airframes will be at least 40 to 50 years old at retirement.
Several years ago, the USAF announced that the B-1B would be phased out over the next two decades. However, this plan was based on the successful development of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, a dual-capable, stealth bomber.
The USAF’s strategic plan is to use two bombers—the B-21 and the B-52H Stratofortress—the first of which came online in 1955. In an ironic twist, the B-1B will be taken out of service before the B-52—the airplane it was intended to replace. The USAF has not announced when it will retire another group of B-1Bs or begin retiring the B-2 Spirit fleet.
As noted in National Interest, significant delays in the B-21 program or “changes in the strategic situations” could cause the USAF to keep the B-1B flying, “much as the B-52 has remained in service well beyond a variety of projected retirement dates.” Whenever the last B-1B is retired, the U.S. “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.”
When it was built, the B-1B was intended to deliver nuclear weapons inside the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the aircraft never undertook that mission.
Since then, B-1B bombers have served in multiple capacities, demonstrating a remarkable degree of mission flexibility. Although their numbers continue to dwindle, the B-1B is a key part of the USAF arsenal at this time.
FLYING Classics thanks Air & Space Forces Magazine, Boeing, military.com, the National Interest, OWLcation.com, and the United States Air Force for information and photos that contributed significantly to this article.