B-1 bomber turns 25

The U.S. Air Force’s B-1 bomber cel­e­brat­ed its sil­ver anniver­sary in June. But as in many mar­riages, the path to reach­ing the 25-year mile­stone wasn’t always pre­dictable.

The B-1 has now delivered more than 70 percent of a key satellite-guided munition used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
The B-1 has now deliv­ered more than 70 per­cent of a key satel­lite-guid­ed muni­tion used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan dur­ing Oper­a­tion Endur­ing Free­dom.
U.S. Air Force Pho­to
Click to enlarge

“The Boe­ing-built B-1 was con­ceived dur­ing the Cold War to drop nuclear bombs,” said Howard Cham­bers, a for­mer Boe­ing B-1 pro­gram man­ag­er. “The first air­craft was deliv­ered in 1985, but when the Cold War end­ed six years lat­er, the Unit­ed States agreed to remove the B-1’s nuclear capa­bil­i­ty as part of an arms reduc­tion treaty with Rus­sia. It was sud­den­ly an air­craft with­out a pri­ma­ry mis­sion.”

But the B-1 still had plen­ty of life, not to men­tion un-refu­eled inter­con­ti­nen­tal range and plen­ty of room for weapons. So Boe­ing and the Air Force rein­vent­ed it. They trans­formed the sleek bomber into what would become a work­horse pro­tect­ing U.S. and allied ground troops.

Today, the B-1 enjoys a sec­ond hon­ey­moon of sorts.

“The B-1 is an out­stand­ing con­ven­tion­al bomber, and now with all the upgrades, such as tar­get­ing pods and radars, it has allowed us to play a big part in the fight over­seas in Afghanistan and in Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Mike Miller, com­man­der of the 9th Bomb Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. “It allows us to stay air­borne for many hours. We car­ry a lot of gas, and we car­ry a lot of weapons. So right now, our pri­ma­ry job over­seas is we go per­form close-air sup­port for the troops on the ground, who love this air­craft.”

Mod­i­fy­ing the B-1 for a non-nuclear role was no small task. When it was built, it was not equipped to com­mu­ni­cate with ground troops, and its abil­i­ty to car­ry con­ven­tion­al bombs was lim­it­ed.

“As part of the con­ver­sion to a con­ven­tion­al bomber, we had to install tac­ti­cal radios for the bomber crew to com­mu­ni­cate with the troops on the ground,” said Rich Parke, Boeing’s B-1 busi­ness devel­op­ment man­ag­er. “We were mov­ing from fixed tar­gets, like muni­tions dumps or pow­er plants that would have been sur­veyed ahead of time, to tar­gets that were dynam­ic and had just recent­ly been locat­ed by recon­nais­sance plat­forms or ground troops.”

The next step was con­vert­ing the weapon bays to hold more con­ven­tion­al weapons, includ­ing satel­lite-guid­ed weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Muni­tions (JDAMs). Boe­ing-built JDAMs are low-cost guid­ance kits that con­vert exist­ing 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-pound, unguid­ed, free-fall bombs into accu­rate­ly guid­ed “smart” weapons. The B-1 dropped its first JDAM in Afghanistan less than one month after the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist attacks in the Unit­ed States. The B-1 has now deliv­ered more than 70 per­cent of the JDAMs dropped by U.S. forces in Afghanistan dur­ing Oper­a­tion Endur­ing Free­dom.

Anoth­er fea­ture that now dis­tin­guish­es the B-1 is its abil­i­ty to car­ry mul­ti­ple types of weapons.

“With the Block E mod­i­fi­ca­tion came new com­put­ers that gave the B-1 the flex­i­bil­i­ty to mix and car­ry dif­fer­ent weapons,” said Boeing’s Mark Mete­via, the for­mer tech­ni­cal lead respon­si­ble for putting con­ven­tion­al weapons on the B-1. “New soft­ware was writ­ten so an indi­vid­ual launch­er could car­ry and release a blend of dif­fer­ent bombs. The B-1 was no longer lim­it­ed to car­ry­ing one type of bomb.”

A once-nuclear bomber was trans­formed into a mul­ti-role, long-range, flex­i­ble strike bomber capa­ble of pro­vid­ing armed recon­nais­sance, close-air sup­port, armed escort and show of force to pro­tect coali­tion ground forces.

The B-1’s con­ver­sion to a con­ven­tion­al bomber was under­scored by imple­men­ta­tion of a treaty pro­vi­sion allow­ing Rus­sia to inspect B-1s at ran­dom.

“I was vis­it­ing Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dako­ta a cou­ple of years ago when the Air Force offi­cials we were meet­ing with had to be excused to escort a Russ­ian del­e­ga­tion to inspect the B-1s,” Parke said. “The Rus­sians were val­i­dat­ing that the air­craft were mod­i­fied in accor­dance with the treaty.”

B-1 oper­a­tors say the cur­rent fleet of 66 air­craft main­tains its rel­e­vance in an ever-chang­ing envi­ron­ment thanks to an Air Force-Boe­ing part­ner­ship to improve what is affec­tion­ate­ly called the “Bone,” derived from the pho­net­i­cal­ly spelled name B-one.

“This is such a great air­craft,” Miller said. “The crew mem­bers love it, the main­tain­ers love it and the nation loves it because the job it does over­seas is just tremen­dous.”

Boe­ing Com­pa­ny

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