Military aircraft seldom take an uneventful road to full operational service and such was the case with the storied Rockwell B-1 "Lancer" heavy bomber of the United States Air Force (USAF). The Lancer was developed as a nuclear-capable, high-speed bomber to replace the venerable Boeing B-52 "Stratofortress" heavy bombers in service with the USAF since 1955. The Mach 3-capable North American XB-70 Valkyrie was originally set to become the primary heavy bomber of the USAF and Strategic Air Command (SAC) - as well as serving as the B-52's original replacement - but the global political climate, advancing technologies, and an unfortunate accident ultimately led to the product's cancellation. Key forces behind the demise of the XB-70 were advances in Soviet air defenses (in both radar and missile technologies as well as manned interceptors like the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 "Foxbat") and the growing U.S. focus on ICBMs and cruise missiles as a first-strike, radar-evading, low cost alternative to a manned bomber approach. Beyond the B-52 for the high-altitude bombing role, USAF SAC held only the "swing wing" General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark" in its stable and this was used primarily in the low-level strike role. The B-52 was a subsonic "heavy" while the F-111 operated as a supersonic system with a much more limited bomb load.
The New Bomber Requirement
With the end of the XB-70 venture, the USAF continued with design studies for a new generation bomber throughout the 1960s, first under the Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA) program for it was deemed that manned bombers still carried better accuracy than missiles of the day. A myriad of forms and types were bandied about - delta wing planforms, swing-wing options, subsonic penetrators - and all were to integrate the latest in radar-evading technology where possible - a far cry from the design lines and brute function of the massive B-52.
The period of studies spanned from the early 1960s into the latter part of the decade to which certain qualities of the new bomber began to emerge: a crew of four for the expected mission load, variable sweep wings for high-speed dashing at low altitude, a large airframe for the needed mix of fuel and weapons (to be held internally), and Mach 2 (minimum) performance. The aircraft would also be required to take off and land in short order and carry with it a high degree of crew/aircraft survivability. Its payload would consist of nuclear ordnance / stand-off missiles to fulfill one-third of the "Nuclear Triad" doctrine employed by the Americans - nuclear missiles launched from the air, land or sea. In this way, one corner of the triangle could back the other as a fail-safe in the aftermath of a first-strike by the Soviets.
A four-year study began in 1965 to fulfill the need and several principle names in the American defense industry responded - North American, Boeing, and General Dynamics. In March of 1967, North American merged with Rockwell International to become North American Rockwell.
North American Rockwell Wins Out
With the close of the formal design study period in November of 1969, the USAF moved on an official Request For Proposal (RFP) with Boeing, General Dynamics, and North American Rockwell all delivering their best submissions. For North American, this became the D481-55B. After review, North American Rockwell was selected the winner of the competition on June 5th, 1970. The aircraft was to carry the designation of "B-1A" and the contract covered seven total airframes - five flyable and the remaining two to be used as static testbeds. To go along with the new aircraft was an all-new engine initiative and this fell to military/civilian engine stalwart General Electric for their F101-GE-100 of 30,000 lb thrust output with afterburner capability.
It would take some time to get the B-1A into USAF pilot hands so, as an interim measure, the General Dynamics F-111 was modified for the strategic bomber role and the Boeing B-52 itself revised to also fulfill a low-level penetrator function. The would help to bring SAC capability up to par for the growing threat posed by Soviet air defenses and its interceptors - a network that already showed its capabilities with the downing of Gary Powers' U-2 in 1960. With the measures in place, the B-1A was allowed to advance under its own timeline.
B-1 Bomber Walk-Around
The finalized B-1A form became a slender aircraft given a streamlined fuselage, blended wing roots, underslung engine pairs, and a single vertical tail fin. The long nose cone housed radar while the cockpit included seating for the four crew in a side-by-side arrangement - the pilots in front and the offensive/defensive systems specialists aft. A whole-crew escape capsule was the primary means of survival as opposed to individual ejection seats. The swing wing approach was adopted for the needed runway, low / high altitude performance phases of the aircraft's operation. These structures rested at a 15-degree angle and became swept at a 67.5-degree angle when needed. Four engines gave the airframe a Mach 2+ maximum speed. The construction makeup of the aircraft was a mix of aluminum alloys, steel, titanium, composites, fiberglass, and polymide quartz (over 41% of the aircraft was aluminum). In-flight refueling was made possible through a port over the nose just ahead of the front windscreen.
USAF representatives reviewed their new bomber in a little over a year from when the contract was granted. Despite the hundreds of changes requested, the aircraft was a sound, promising venture and a far cry from the bombers of the 1950s and 1960s. The initial B-1A was unveiled to the public in October of 1974 and a first flight followed on December 23rd, 1974. A period of heavy flight testing followed that showcased a product fulfilling nearly all of the USAF requirements for their new bomber.
Due to the shifting political landscape of the United States in the late 1970s, the B-1A initiative was cancelled in favor of further development on ICBMs and cruise missiles. This left just three completed B-1A aircraft. The cancellation of the B-1A and its GE engine came on June 30th, 1977 with the inbound Carter Administration though the product was able to exist in limited development for possible future value. The 1978 defense spending budget allotted funding for a fourth B-1A.
The B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber
As the B-1A program wound down, Northrop Grumman was working on the USAF's new "Advanced Technology Bomber" (ATB) - a true stealth initiative that was to serve as a replacement to the B-52 and as successor to the B-1A. This platform was to become a much more advanced product than the B-1A but with such advances came heavier costs - of the 132 originally envisioned, just 21 would be actually procured. Also, the B-2 would not come online (in strength) until 1987 which left a noticeable gap between its arrival and outgoing B-52 Stratofortresses. This forced the USAF to consider modified versions of either its F-111 or B-1A stock for the interim - the availability of these airframes allowing for express conversions to a new bomber standard.
Interim Measures, Again
Of the two, the B-1A was selected in October of 1981 and this ultimately begat the B-1B variant - testing would be completed on two of the existing B-1A airframes. The B-1B program officially began on March 23rd, 1983. A crash of one of the aircraft in August of 1984 delayed progress some - the crew capsule ejection system working as designed but the crash still resulting in the death of test pilot Doug Benefield and injuries to two of the three surviving crew. Flight testing was concluded in October of 1985.
By this time, serial production of the B-1B had already commenced (back in 1984) and this continued into 1988 with 100 aircraft delivered to the USAF. Initial Operating Capability (IOC) of the mark occurred in 1986. 1987 marked the first lost of a B-1B when the low-flying aircraft hit a bird - in addition to the four crewmembers aboard were two observers in non-ejecting seats. Three of the six crew (two observers and one standard crewman) died when one of the four ejection seats failed to launch.
The B-1B Over the B-1A
Compared to the B-1A, the B-1B carried all-new flight controls, improved avionics, upgraded Electronic CounterMeasures (ECMs), fixed air inlets (replacing variable types, this reducing maximum speed to Mach 1.25), individual ejection seats (replacing the ejection capsule approach), increased Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW), and RAM (Radar-Absorbent Material) for some base stealth capability. The internal weapon bays (three) were configurable for a variety of munition types including precision ("smart") bombs and cruise missiles as well as non-combat components like extra fuel stores. A non-nuclear bomb-carrying function was eventually integrated following the demise of the Soviet Union and the thawing of East-West relations. B-1Bs were taken off their nuclear duty role in 1991 making the aircraft a full-fledged conventional bomber in the USAF inventory and no longer restricted to just the low-level penetrator/strike role.
Not a Stealth Bomber
The B-1B is not a stealth aircraft as the Lockheed F-117 "Nighthawk" or the Northrop B-2 despite its use of a slim profile and RAM coating. It still relies on low-level flight and speed to bypass or outrun enemy defenses. To help the aircraft in this role, it is equipped with Terrain Following and Terrain Avoidance radar modes for use over land or water. This lets the aircraft "hug" the terrain below while promoting itself as a more difficult target to track/engage. No one Lancer has been shot down as an enemy target in war - recorded losses attributed to accidents and general operational attrition than anything else. The B-1B also holds excellent endurance thanks to the shared cockpit workload and in-flight refueling. It is also the recipient of aviation records including time-to-climb records across three different weight categories.
The North American to Rockwell to Boeing Brand Evolution
The B-1 bomber product was born under the North American Aviation brand label before the merger with Rockwell. From this joining spawned Rockwell International, the brand label most commonly associated with the B-1 Lancer until 2001 when the product fell under Boeing ownership. As such, the B-1B Lancer today is recognized as a Boeing product - a common result of the many mergers seen in the latter decades of the Cold War.
The Current B-1B Stock and Its Future
The USAF did not purchase more than the stated 100 B-1B bombers since the aircraft's introduction. Sixty-two of this stock remain in service as of 2014 and are expected to fulfill their roles into the 2040s. The B-1 never replaced the B-52 and has served alongside it, as well as alongside the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, simply due to the USAF need. Amazingly, the service life of the B-52 is expected to reach into 2040.
Since its inception in 1986, the B-1B has proven an effective warplane but also an expensive and complex one. Its technology-laden design means it is an inherently costly platform and, thus, a regular contender for retirement which each passing budget year. The B-52 has required less over the long run to keep that aged fleet airborne for longer and is another proven battlefield performer - though lacking any stealth capabilities in its design.
The B-1B has been upgraded along several lines to keep it a viable aerial weapons delivery platform for the foreseeable future. Its radar system was upgraded through the Radar Reliability and Maintainability Improvement Program (RRMIP) as reliability of these units became a recurring sticking point in service due to age. The navigation suite was also upgraded as were battlefield situational awareness systems. The cockpit will see a revision to include color Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) added as well as instrumentation upgrades. Work is expected to be completed by 2020.
The B-1R "Regional"
A proposed B-1 upgraded variant is the B-1R ("Regional"). The line would receive air-to-air missile capability on additional external hardpoints, new Pratt & Whitney F119 series turbofan engines, modern radar (including AESA), and increased speed to Mach 2.2 though with reduced range.
The B-1B has seen combat action over Iraq (Operation Desert Fox, 1998), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003). It missed out on Operation Desert Storm (1991) for its conventional bombing functionality has not been added by then and engine issues further kept the aircraft from participating. For the offensive against Saddam Hussein's vaunted forces, the B-52 took the place of the B-1B in the conventional bombing role.
Throughout its operational tenure, the B-1 has served with Strategic Air Command, Air Combat Command, the Air National Guard, and with the Air Force Flight Test Center. Two B-1A bombers were claimed as museum showpieces while some eight B-1B series aircraft have also been saved from the scrap heap in the same way. Though stripped of its nuclear-carrying and delivery capability, the remaining B-1Bs in service can very well be retrofitted for the nuclear role once more if needed.
The B-1 is affectionately known as "Bone" for its designation - "B-One".