Key point: The success of the B-1B in missions like this is reflective of the flexibility of large, high-performance airframes.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force announced plans to retire the B-1B Lancer (also known as the “Bone”) in favor of the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber. The B-1B will remain in service for some time, but unlike its older cousin the B-52, its days are apparently numbered. The B-1B has served in a variety of capacities since the 1980s, demonstrating a remarkable degree of mission flexibility.
Origins of the B-1B
The B-1B evolved from the B-1A, which itself rose from the ashes of the B-70 Valkyrie. U.S. strategic bomber development stalled out in the 1960s, as concerns about Soviet SAM defenses forced the air force to reinvent its mission concept. Fast, high-flying bombers fell out of favor, while the B-52 (which excelled in a low altitude role) remained relevant beyond its expiration date. Nevertheless, the air force still wanted a supersonic bomber. The Nixon administration was more flexible on this question than the Johnson administration, and studies began in 1969. The first prototype flew in 1974. As designed, the B-1A could exceed mach 2 at high altitude, mach 1.2 at low altitude.
Even then, the B-1 remained controversial. U.S. intel suggested that Soviet radars were improving, making the low altitude penetration mission riskier. At the same time, the development of short-range cruise missiles offered to make the B-52 a more formidable platform. The Carter administration cancelled the B-1A in an effort to cut costs and make the defense budget more efficient.
The Reagan administration reversed this verdict. Reagan was more interested in pushing the Soviet Union to its limits, and analysis of the cost of the Soviet air defense network reinforced the idea that a new strategic bomber would put the USSR at a cost disadvantage. The B-1A was reworked into the B-1B which was slower, somewhat less expensive and had a smaller radar cross-section. Rockwell built 100 B-1Bs for the air force, as well as four B-1A prototypes. Sixty-six of the aircraft remain in service.
The B-1B’s Capabilities