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Brittle Bones?

The U.S. Air Force signed a five-year, $200 million contract with Boeing on March 4 for full-scale fatigue testing of the B-1B Lancer, or “Bone” bomber. The service said in an announcement that it “is keen to ensure that the aircraft is structurally safe to meet operational demands for the remainder of its service life out to 2040.” Some wondered, however, if the fatigue tests might provide fodder for a vocal minority of Pentagon officers who have long wanted to put the Bone out to pasture because of its extraordinary operating costs.

The Air Force had already planned to retire six B-1Bs as part of the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2012. At present, 66 B-1Bs are in service out of 100 built during the 1980s.

The Air Staff has both advocates and critics of the Bone. One group argues that the B-1B has matured into an effective weapons system for conventional and counterinsurgency wars, able to loiter over a war zone and to use advanced targeting pods to deliver satellite-guided ordnance at a time and place of the warfighter’s choice. But detractors say the Bone is outrageously expensive to operate and maintain.

For each hour of flight, a B-1B requires 47.4 man-hours of maintenance. The bomber “is a maintenance person’s nightmare,” Sgt. Jacques Boddy, a B-1 maintainer at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, told David Wood of the Washington newsletter Politics Daily. “It’s the hardest airplane to maintain in the entire United States Air Force!”

Still, the Bone is proving invaluable in Afghanistan, where it is deployed with the AN/AAQ-33 Sniper XR targeting pod, which gives a crew enhanced situational awareness and a better look at their target. Capt. Chris D. “Orkin” McConnell, a B-1B pilot with the 34th Bomb Squadron, the “Thunderbirds” at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., said in a telephone interview, “Every minute we’re in the air we’re watching, watching, watching, to assist our troops on the ground. We can see roads, bridges, and moving vehicles with our radar. Sometimes our presence is enough. We don’t always need to drop a bomb to help them, although we’re still considered primarily a radar bomber.”

Despite a design life of 9,681 flight hours, several B-1Bs have already surpassed 10,000 hours and “actual use has been three to four times more severe than what was planned,” said Justin Evans, B-1 sustainment lead project engineer at Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., in an Air Force news release. At Tinker, preparatory work for the testing is already under way.

Debate over the B-1B is fueled by uncertainty over a replacement. The administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been “on-again, off-again” – Gates’ own term – about developing a new bomber to replace the Air Force’s 66 B-1Bs, 19 B-2 Spirits and 68 B-52 Stratofortresses. Gates shelved plans for a “2018 bomber,” named for the year it would have entered service, and now favors what officials call a “family” of “long-range strike” platforms, including a bomber that will have the option of being manned or unmanned. Although the B-1B no longer has a nuclear mission (unlike the B-2 and B-52), a new platform would be nuclear-capable. The FY 12 budget request includes $3.74 billion over five years for “long-range strike.”


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...