In Afghanistan in February, a U. S. Air Force B-1B Lancer monitored hostile militants who reconnoitered, approached, and then attacked U.S. ground troops. Coordinating with the friendly ground commander, the crew of the B-1B – or the “Bone,” as airmen call it – delivered a satellite-guided bomb that disrupted the enemy force and may have saved American lives.
“We called this armed overwatch,” said Capt. Kaylene “Frau” Giri, a weapons systems officer with the 34th Bomb Squadron, the “Thunderbirds.” “We’re up twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week over Afghanistan.” Giri said the combination of the B-1B’s upgraded radar system and the AN/AAQ-33 Sniper XR targeting pod enables a “Bone” to loiter over the battlespace and “keep track of everything that’s happening.” Some missions run 12 to 15 hours.
Today, Air Force leaders consider the B-1B with its surveillance and bombing capabilities a high-priority asset, but it was not always such a prized possession. Truth is, the dart-shaped, swing-wing, 190,000-pound Bone was once the most maligned machine in the Air Force inventory.
A quarter century ago, the first B-1B joined the 96th Bombardment Wing at Dyess Air Force Base, Tex., on June 1, 1985. Designed to sneak under the radar for treetop-altitude, high-speed penetration of the Soviet Union during the opening hours of an atomic Armageddon, the “Bone” never quite proved fully ready for that task and seemed in early years to attract nothing but trouble.
The Air Force wanted to name the B-1B the Excalibur, until learning that this was a popular brand of condom, and finally settled on the name Lancer, which aircrews don’t like and don’t use. In early days, the bomber’s ALQ-161 defensive avionics system performed so poorly that a trade journal dubbed the B-1B “the world’s first self-jamming bomber.” The plane suffered fiscal problems, schedule delays, wing cracks, engine failures and crashes. Miffed over its cost, a Capitol Hill lawmaker suggested painting it yellow and using it as a base taxi.
As recently as three years ago, then-Air Force chief of staff Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley said the B-1B fleet might have to be retired because it seemed to offer little return in exchange for high maintenance and operating costs. A rigorous quality-control program has brought costs down, but the “Bone” still costs $57,000 per hour to fly.
Today, with concern high over unwanted civilian casualties and with its surveillance role so vital to troops on the ground, it’s worth the price. “In 2009, we flew less than 1 percent of the sorties in Iraq and we dropped 43 percent of the [satellite-guided munitions],” said Lt. Col. Alejandro “Ponch” Gomez, a B-1B weapons systems officer at Air Combat Command headquarters, Langley Air Force Base, Va.
Able to provide close air support as never before from 20,000 feet or higher, the B-1B is being upgraded so crews won’t have to use laptop computers to operate the Sniper pod. Far from relegating any “Bone” to the boneyard, the Air Force is also developing a new fully-integrated datalink (FIDL) for the bomber and will eventually add the capability to direct laser-guided weapons. Officials say there is no thought, now, of putting any of the 65 “Bones” out to pasture.
From April 28 to May 2, the B-1B community will convene at Abilene, Tex., to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the bomber’s arrival at Dyess. This reunion is for aircrew, maintainers, engineers, contractors and military and civic leaders. “The event organizers are focused on the future and will showcase the road ahead for the B-1B,” said Lt. Col. Darin A. “Def” Defendorf, a pilot in the Dyess unit now called the 7th Bomb Wing. The event is being held in conjunction with the Dyess/Big Country Airfest (Saturday, May 1), an open house and air show that will feature the Thunderbirds flight demonstration team. Details are at www.b-1b.org