Key Point: These bombers are some of the best. If hypesonics are an important part of future war, why not add them to the plane's weapons?
After the Cold War, the B-1 platform lost a clear mission, their specific role was no longer needed. In Afghanistan they found a new calling as a ground-attack, close air-support platform, thanks to a high weapon load out, and long loiter times.
Fast forward to today. The United States’ hypersonic missile program seems to be moving along at a fast clip.
Air Force General Timothy Ray said that the Air Force plans on reinstalling eight external pylons on B-1s that were removed due to treaty restrictions. These external pylons would be used for attaching hypersonic missiles.
One of the options in the Air Force arsenal is the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, a hypersonic cruise missile. The AGM-138 is a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle that is contained within a booster. Although details are unknown for certain, it would be capable of flying over Mach 5.
But there is another hypersonic option that is being developed. The Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, is a joint Darpa-U.S. Air Force project.
According to a DARPA press release, the HAWC project aims to “to develop and demonstrate critical technologies to enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile,” a possible indication that the HAWC is more of a technology demonstrator or test platform.
An Air Force Magazine article underscored the variety of hypersonic missiles the B-1 could carry in its bomb bays and on external pylons. The Air Force has been “thinking about mixed carriage of hypersonic missiles both internally and externally, on the B-1 and B-52. Using the external hardpoints… a B-1 could conceivably carry 31 hypersonic missiles.” That would be the very definition of armed to the teeth. Despite these lofty plans, there are still some hurdles.
Old-age Aches and Pains
“My goal would be to bring on at least a squadron’s worth of airplanes modified with external pylons on the B-1, to carry the ARRW hypersonic cruise missile,” General Ray said.
He admitted that some of the B-1s need substantial work, but that the Air Force has “got support from Congress to do this. This is a thing that we’re working to get ourselves through. We’ve had a very good dialog.”
As I previously wrote, the B-1 has had a bumpy ride. As of last year, B-1s were restricted from low-level flight, due to the additional stress those types of flights put on airframes. The Bones may be starting to show their age.
Perhaps the B-1 Bone has escaped the executioner’s axe. Hypersonic missiles might just be their saving grace.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.
This first appeared in 2020 and is being reposted due to reader interest.