Today’s installment of Warbirds brings us to the supersonic, swingwing marvel the B-1B Lancer. Unofficially known as the “Bone” (from B-one), the development and deployment of this strategic bomber increased pressure on the Soviets and helped shorten the Cold War. The B-1’s first flight took place on December 23, 1974.
Envisioned in the 60’s as a Mach 2 replacement for the B-52, it was hoped that the Lancer would have the range and payload capacity to meet or exceed her predecessor. Actual development of the aircraft didn’t start until the 1970’s and the design changed many times as political views of what her mission would be were revised. President Carter actually cancelled the B-1A program after 4 aircraft were built in another misguided attempt to placate the Soviet Union. But, the Reagan administration resurrected the project in 1981 to counter mounting worldwide Soviet adventurism. Subsequently, Rockwell received a contract in 1982 and B-1B became operational with the U.S. Air Force October 1st, 1986.
It was known early on that the Lancer would not be able to take the place of the Venerable B-52. What was envisioned was a strategic bomber that had the ability to elude Soviet radar and strike without warning deep within enemy territory. Many viewed this capability as destabilizing in a Nuclear world. However, the necessity of countering the perceived threat of the B-1B forced the Soviets into ever more unsustainable research, development, and defense spending. Without ever delivering a nuclear weapon, the Lancer helped shorten the war.
In the 90’s, further development proceeded on the “Advanced Technology Bomber” (which became the B-2 Spirit), leading to a role change for the B-1B. Part of the fleet was converted over to a fledgling conventional munitions capability. However, engine issues prevented the Lancer’s participation in the Gulf War. It would be 1998 before B-1Bs would take part in Operation Desert Fox and undertake conventional combat operations. That successful mission against Saddam Hussein’s regime would presage deployments in Kosovo, the invasion of Iraq, Operation Enduring Freedom, and they continue to perform “armed overwatch” in support of ground forces in Afghanistan today.
Of the original 100 built, only 93 remain in the inventory and a good portion of those are in reserve storage. Without the refits and upgrades that the Obama administration has placed on hold, the aging B-1Bs are looking ahead to retirement in the 2030s. Debate continues over the true effectiveness of the Lancer as further deployment of the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber continues.
Further information on “Bone” can be found on the U.S. Air Force website on the B-1B Lancer Fact Sheet or in the Air Force documentary below.