August 15, 2012: A U.S. Air Force B-1B ("Bone") bomber squadron recently returned from a six month tour in Afghanistan. There, the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron flew the most B-1B sorties ever (770) on a single deployment. The squadron B-1Bs spent 9,500 hours airborne. The squadron had one of its bombers in the air at all times while in Afghanistan. The squadron's nine B-1Bs accounted for a quarter of the combat aircraft sorties over Afghanistan while in Afghanistan and desponded, on average, to 2-3 requests for air support per day.
The B-1Bs have long been used to drop smart bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are particularly popular in Afghanistan because you can put one in the air and it can cover the entire country. While the B-1B is twice as expensive to operate (per hour in the air) than the B-52, the B-1B can more quickly move to a new target over a large place like Afghanistan. B-1B combat sorties average about 11 hours.
The B-1B is more expensive to operate than the older B-52 because they haul around a lot of gear that is not needed for the current counter-terror operations. This is the stuff that can break down and cause the aircraft to be grounded until the problem is fixed. The additional gear on the B-1B enables it to travel low and fast, to evade enemy air defenses. New maintenance procedures have eliminated a lot of the need to keep superfluous systems functional. The air force also went looking for new maintenance solutions. For example, they paid close attention to new techniques developed by commercial airlines and air forces in other countries. All this helped those nine B-1Bs stay in the air for so long.
The U.S. Air Force is also upgrading its B-1B heavy bomber fleet, a process that will last until the end of the decade. The 67 aircraft will get new cockpits (with color flat screens to replace the current monochrome ones) along with digital communications so that data, including pictures and videos, can be quickly shared with other aircraft, as well as ground units and ships. Finally, a new electronic test system is being installed to make it easier to find failing components and get them fixed.
There have been several upgrades to the B-1Bs over the last few years. Three years ago a B-1B used its newly installed Sniper targeting pod in combat for the first time. These pods enable the aircraft crew to see, in great detail, what's happening on the ground, even when the aircraft is flying at 6.8 kilometers (20,000 feet) altitude. For example, the pod users can tell if someone down there is dressed as a man or a woman, or is carrying a weapon.