Attrition: The Bone Abides

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September 1, 2013: On August 19th a U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber crashed in a remote area of Montana (northwest U.S.). The four man crew ejected safely and no one on the ground was hurt. This is the first such loss of a B-1B since 2001, when one became uncontrollable and crashed into the Indian Ocean near its base on the island of Diego Garcia. Again, the four man crew managed to escape unharmed. It was never determined what caused that crash, but the recent one was on land and the wreckage can be reassembled to pinpoint the problem.

Despite these losses, the B-1B has come into its own in the last decade, doing excellent service in Iraq and Afghanistan as a “bomb truck” that can stay in the air all day and get anywhere its needed quickly. The U.S. is the only user of the B-1B, and last year the 10,000th mission was flown by one of the 66 B-1B bombers in service. Not bad for a hundred aircraft that entered service in 1985.

There are only 65 of the "Bones" (from B-One) left now, and none are doing what they were designed for (flying low and fast into heavily defended enemy territory during the Cold War to deliver nuclear weapons). But because the B-1Bs are twenty years younger than the B-52s, they were available for duty as much as the B-52s and became particularly popular over Afghanistan, where higher speed (compared to the B-52) enabled one B-1B to cover the entire country. On a slow day the single B-1B could hustle from one part of the country to deliver a smart bomb or two and then be off to another tense situation on the ground. This is the first sustained use of the B-1B and, by and large, the bomber has performed quite well.

As a result of this, because of the new START nuclear-weapons limitation treaty with Russia, the U.S. Air Force wants to keep 40 B-52s and 20 B-2s for carrying nukes. The B-1Bs will be restricted to just carrying smart bombs, which it has proved very good at over Afghanistan and Iraq. The air force also wants a dozen or so B-52s retained just for smart bombs as well.

The mystery here is why keep fifty year old B-52s for anything? It's because until recently they were the cheapest to operate and most reliable "bomb truck" the air force had. With a max takeoff weight of 240-250 tons the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow) is basically a large aircraft designed to carry bombs cheaply and efficiently.

Despite that, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq the B-1B got to show its capabilities. While flying only five percent of the sorties, the B-1B delivered 40 percent of the bombs. The 216 ton aircraft can carry 34 tons of bombs in its three bomb bays. It's a 1970s design that entered service just as the Cold War, which it was designed for, ended.

The B-1B used to be more expensive to operate than the older B-52 because they hauled around a lot of gear that is not needed for the current counter-terror operations. This was 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 enabled 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 bring costs way down. As a result it now costs $63,000 per flight hour for the B-1B, versus $72,000 for the B-52, and the $135,000 of the B-2.

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 65 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.

One of the more useful upgrades took place five years ago and a year later 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.

The B-1Bs, designed to replace the B-52 as America's "nuclear bomber," ended up as a bomb truck, with much of its high-tech gear removed or turned off. In that state the B-1B has proved reliable enough to compete with its older, simpler, cheaper, and still vigorous counterpart.

 

 


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