Warplanes: August 25, 2005


The U.S. Air Force is betting lots of money on its B-1B bomber, an aircraft that was the victim of many cancellation attempts, and the butt of many jokes because of that. But in the end, or at least as of today, the B-1B turned out to be a good investment. The B-1B carries more bombs than any other American heavy bomber. It can also move fast (about 1,500 kilometers an hour) if it needs to, and is stealthy. The B-1B played a major role in the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan, where eight of them dropped 40 percent of the total bomb tonnage. In Iraq in 2003, eleven B-1B's, four B-2A's and 28 B-52H's were used. These 43 aircraft flew some 500 missions, and were responsible for dropping a third of the bombs that hit targets during the campaign. More importantly, these heavy bombers were able to circle up there for hours, waiting for the ground troops to call for another smart bomb. Even though the B-1B costs, compared to the B-52, twice as much per hour to operate, it carries more bombs, and has a longer useful life than the B-52s (which are twenty years older).

Most of the B-1Bs equipment is 1980s vintage. So the air force has been investing in upgrades, upgrades that make the B-1B better at doing what it does best. The 67 B-1Bs (on active duty) are being equipped with much improved fire control systems. This allows them to use the latest smart bombs (like JASSM and SDB), and makes it possible for the B-1B to use smart bombs to hit moving targets (ships or land vehicles.) B-1Bs have gotten radar, cockpit and other upgrades as well. 

The major reason for investing money in the B-1B is because, despite all the attention, and cash, given to the new F-22 and F-35, its the B-1B that will do most of the work in any future war. Congress has been so impressed with the B-1B that they have been pressuring the air force to activate the B-1Bs that were deactivated. The air force doesnt want to do this. For one thing, it would cost over $150 million, each, to bring those aircraft back to active service (upgraded equipment must be installed, and other components refurbished or replaced). Moreover, as the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns demonstrated, you dont need many B-1Bs to get the job done. 

The air force budget is already under tremendous pressure because of the senior leadership wanting to get the F-22 and F-35 into production, and built in large numbers. But the generals know they would be in big trouble if another war came along and they did not have a dozen or so B-1Bs ready to go. Its more likely the absence of F-22s and F-35s would not be noticed. But the B-1Bs would definitely be missed. The air force is likely to cut purchases for the new JSASSM cruise missile (which is having development problems), before it does anything to the  B-1B (which can carry 24 of these missiles) upgrade budget. The JASSM is only needed if there is an opponent with a modern air defense system to hit. At the moment, only China qualifies, and only in places. Another bomber weapon having some problems is the SBD (the 250 pound Small Diameter smart Bomb). The B-1B can carry over a hundred of these, which would be real handy in a future war. The air force may sacrifice JASSM to keep the SDB alive, and ready for use in B-1Bs. The B-1B is  a lot easier to use than the B-2 (with its hard to maintain radar absorbing skin.) The B-1B may not have gotten much respect over the years, but when theres a war, it always gets the call.


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