Phoenix Risen: The Transformation of the Boeing B-1B

By Walter Boyne

Remember the old Hollywood cliché, where a very plain girl is pushed around by everyone until she suddenly takes off her horn-rim glasses, lets her hair down and becomes the belle of the ball? That’s the way it has been with the Boeing (nee Rockwell) B-1B. The pushing around started way back during its development days and continued on for decades, but in recent Middle East conflicts, the glasses have come off, the hair is down, and the Bone is kicking butt where ever it goes.

The transformation of the B-1B from a whipping boy of columnists seeking weapon system horror stories and Congressional budget cutters came just in time to save it from early extinction. The Phoenix-like rise of the Bone from the ashes of snide ridicule is long overdue, because the B-1B has always been a great airplane, despite some short comings in its electronics. Sadly, no one noted that just 100 B-1Bs were intended to stifle the Soviet Union, doing the job of 600 B-52s and 1,300 B-47s. Nor was credit ever given to the expert crews who fly it with élan, and whose skill overcame most of the electronic shortcomings. But the B-1B has now come into its own with the new precision guided munitions and improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aids. Quite simply, the Bone was the most effective weapon system used during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Lieutenant General T. Michael “Buzz” Mosley, the Combined Force Air Component Commander in OIF, called the Bone his “roving linebacker” and “weapon of choice” because of its flexibility, bomb load, range, loiter time, and, most particularly, the eagerness of the B-1 aircrews to “stick their noses in the fight.” The B-1B’s performance in Operation Iraqi Freedom has gained it new support in Congress, and we’ll now see more Bone’s sticking their noses in for longer than anyone thought possible.

boeing b-1b lancerDevelopment History

The B-1B probably had the longest gestation period (twenty-three years) of any aircraft in aviation history. Conception began in 1961, when it was sought as a replacement for the Boeing B-52. In the following years, it went through a series of conceptual phases, each one with a fancy acronym to describe its projected mission. The North American Rockwell XB-70 had been cancelled, and the low-level tactics now required of the Boeing B-52 meant that a new penetrator was needed. A 1961 study suggested that a Subsonic Low Altitude Bomber (SLAB) for the stress of terrain following might replace the B-52. This was followed by the Extended Range Strike Aircraft (ERSA) which featured a variable sweep wing. A 1963 study resulted in the Low Altitude Manned Penetrator (LAMP), a smaller aircraft with a big payload.

In October 1963, requirements were developed for the Advanced Manned Precision Strike System (AMPSS), designed for sub-sonic low altitude flight. The key word in the last two efforts was “Manned” for there was a strong body of thought-read Secretary of Defense Robert S. MacNamara–that the power of the ICBM rendered a manned penetrator superfluous.

By 1964, AMPSS had been changed to AMSA, the Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft, which was to have a high-altitude supersonic capability. Three airframe contractors (Boeing, General Dynamics and North American Rockwell) bid, and so did three engine contractors-General Electric, Curtiss-Wright and Pratt & Whitney.

MacNamara next insisted on transforming his infamous TFX project into the FB-111A, a strategic bomber intended to replace early models of the B-52 and the Convair B-58. General Curtis E. LeMay opposed this, on the grounds that the airplane was too small to carry the necessary fuel and weapons, but MacNamara forced a 252 FB-111A program down the Air Force’s protesting throat.

But MacNamara could not face the coming debacle in Vietnam and left for greener (as in greenback) pastures, the World Bank. With the election of President Richard M. Nixon, a new Secretary of Defense was appointed, Melvin R. Laird. He salvaged as much as he could from the FB-111A program by reducing the buy to 76, and authorizing the AMSA program to proceed.

In April, 1969, the AMSA receiving the designation B-1A. By June 5, 1970, North American Rockwell had been selected to build 244 aircraft, while General Electric was designated the engine contractor. Decisions on the offensive and defensive electronic suites were delayed.

Four B-1As were produced, the first flying on December 23, 1974, thirteen years after the SLAB study. President Jimmy Carter, a notorious micro manager, seized upon the pending development of the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) as the public rationale for canceling the increasingly expensive B-1A on June 30, 1977. To be fair, he was also aware of the highly classified stealth bomber which was under development.

On October 2, 1981, the newly elected President Ronald W. Reagan announced that Rockwell would build 100 B-1B aircraft. About eighty-five percent of the B-1B’s airframe was common to the B-1A, and some ninety percent of the offensive avionic system was derived from equipment installed on the B-52H.

Further study and economic restraints dictated that this much larger aircraft (maximum weight of 477,000 pounds) would not have the same supersonic capability as the B-1A. The B-1B was much stealthier, having a radar cross section of only 1.45 square meters, compared to 100 square meters for a B-52. This coupled with its excellent terrain following capability made the B-1B an excellent penetrator.

The first true production B-1B made its first flight on October 18, 1984 (twenty-three years after the SLAB program) and the first operational B-1B went to the 96th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, on July 7, 1985. The 100 aircraft production run was completed by May 2, 1988, and four SAC bomb wings, the 28th at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, the 96th at Dyess AFB, Texas, the 319th at Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, and the 384th at McConnell AFB, Kansas, were the initial operators.

boeing b-1b lancerA blizzard of bad publicity about perceived B-1B shortcomings completely eclipsed any sober evaluation of the aircraft’s capabilities. These were demonstrated in dozens of operational situations, and in the host of world speed records. The Bone added another fifty records to its total in 2003, the most spectacular being a 1,333.90 (828.84 mph) speed over a 15/25 kilometer straight course.

The adverse publicity situation was exacerbated by a series of accidents and incidents that gained public attention. The first aircraft was lost to a bird-strike on September 28, 1987, killing three of the six men aboard. A series of engine problems led to the grounding of all B-1Bs except those on SAC alert duties from December 19, 1990 to February 5, 1991. The grounding was a rich source for further media vilification of the B-1B.

But the most serious problem was the defective defensive electronic suite. The primary defensive system, the AN/ALQ 161A, automatically receives, identifies and jams radar threats instantaneously, but can be operated manually. It was discovered early on that there were instances in which the B-1B electronic system jammed itself. What was never acknowledged was the ability of well trained B-1B crews to compensate for the deficiencies of the system, which has since been augmented by the ALE 50 towed decoy array.

As the aircraft matured, its mission was changed from its low altitude nuclear penetrator role to that of the delivery of conventional munitions. The process of qualifying to carry these munitions and a shortage of spare parts again diminished the B-1Bs luster. Mission readiness fell to unacceptable levels, and cannibalization was rampant.

The low-point of the B-1B’s career came when it was forced to sit-out the 1991 Gulf War. The official reason was that it was required as a nuclear deterrent and that it had not yet been certified to deliver conventional munitions. To observers critical of the aircraft, the stand-down was the result of engine, deicing, and training problems.

Thus it came as a surprise to everyone but the crews of the B-1B when the Bone did so well in recent operations. Thirty-seven years after the SLAB program was announced, the B-1B entered combat in Operation DESERT FOX, during December 16/18, 1998. The aircraft had reached a point in time where its capabilities coincided with the maturation of space support for bombing missions and the use of precision guided munitions.

Desert Fox was followed by highly successful operations in Kosovo, where six B-1Bs operating out of Royal Air Force Base Fairford provided two percent of the sorties but dropped twenty percent of the bombs in Operation ALLIED FORCE.

Despite its success, the Department of Defense decided to retire thirty-three B-1Bs and use the funds to upgrade the remaining sixty aircraft. This decision faced opposition in Congress, where it was felt that the success of the aircraft should be recognized by maintaining it in higher numbers.

This sentiment was reinforced by the conflict in Afghanistan where the B-1Bs registered another success. They flew only five percent of the missions but dropped forty percent of the weapons-and seventy percent of the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). The key to the B-1Bs triumph was its long range and loiter time, and this worked even more brilliantly in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

The Bone In Action in Iraq

The United States Air Force confronted Iraq for more than a dozen years, flying combat missions in Operations SOUTHERN WATCH and NORTHERN WATCH. An important element of this confrontation was the 405th Air Expeditionary Wing, commanded by then Colonel James M. Kowalski. A composite wing, the 405th operated ten B-1Bs, ten KC-135s and from two to four E-3 AWACS aircraft. In a recent interview, Brigadier General Kowalski said, “I had few concerns about either the aircraft or my crews. I knew we had a solid weapon with the Joint Direct Attack Munitions combination of precision and punch, our defensive systems ranked among the best in the Air Force, and our speed and maneuverability inspired confidence. Most importantly, we had a secret weapon–the best munitions and maintenance folks in the world.” His ground crews kept the B-1Bs at an extraordinary eighty-percent in-commission rate despite their flying eight missions per day, each one eleven hours long. This enabled the ten Bones to drop 2,159 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), forty-three percent of the total used in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and twenty-two percent of all the guided weapons used in the campaign. The 213 sorties flown by the 405th AEW B-1Bs were only one percent of the total flown by coalition forces, but took out ten percent of the targets.

Success on this scale was possible because the B-1B was able to change its mission planning from the traditional scripted approach to a far more flexible role operating under special instructions (SPINS) that made the best use of its long loiter time. Crews would launch with the latest intelligence and communications information, expecting to be assigned specific targets in the air and then to organize ad hoc aircraft force packages as required.

The versatility of the B-1B and its crew members was illustrated on the second night of the conflict when a B-1B, call sign Walla 64, penetrated the most heavily SAM/AAA defended area in Iraq and became the first Bone to operate over downtown Baghdad.

Walla 64’s mission was originally targeted against Republican Guard units south of Baghdad. Prior to taxi, orders were changed to new targets, six GPS jamming towers in the heart of Baghdad’s “Super MEZ” (super missile engagement zone). The GPS jamming towers were a critical target, for the majority of the Coalition’s precision weapons used GPS for accuracy.

Walla 64’s aircraft commander, Colonel Joe Brown, sat in the pilot’s seat on the right, while pilot Capt Lee Johnson was in the aircraft commander seat. Both men used using night vision goggles (NVG). Captains Steve Burgh and George Stone worked together as the Offensive Systems Officer and Defensive Systems Officer, respectively.

During the 2.5 hour flight to Iraq, Burgh and Stone calculated the best allocation of its twenty-four JDAMs to destroy the six towers, minimize collateral damage, and comply with all the many attack restrictions. They then entered all the target information into the offensive avionics system and verified the data to ensure they had 100% accurate target data. While they were doing this, Brown refueled from a KC-10 and Johnson did the communications necessary to built up a force package of 2 F-16CJs (Chop 77) and 2 EA-6B Prowlers (Hectic 64) to suppress enemy air defenses.

At 1825Z, at 27,000 feet, Walla 64 began its attack from the southeast corner of Baghdad, with Hectic 64 jamming and Chop 77 on-station. The city was completely illuminated, shining through a scattered cloud deck at about 10,000 feet. The defensive systems signaled that several surface-to-air missile (SAM) radars were radiating as the Bone circled around the north of the city.

The first release of six weapons went well, despite multiple AAA bursts all around the aircraft. Brown jinked the very maneuverable B-1B left to avoid the AAA, then turned west through the center of Baghdad for the next drop. Johnson observed a SAM launch and, after the last weapon had gone, Brown broke left and Stone released chaff and initiated jamming. Holding a heading to allow the JDAMS to sequentially release with a SAM on the way requires a cool head from everyone. When the SAM appeared to stop guiding on the aircraft, Brown rolled out for the next target.

Halfway through the attack, Johnson spotted two SAM launches in quick succession, with both missiles tracking the aircraft. Burgh directed the crew to maintain a steady platform for all the weapons to release safely on this strike, then cleared the pilots to maneuver. As soon as the six JDAMs were gone, Brown banked hard to the left as Stone dispensed chaff. From his right-hand seat, Brown couldn’t see the tracking missiles so he transferred aircraft control to Johnson who maneuvered the jet to defeat the SAMs. Brown observed one missile go ballistic while the second maintained a steady track on the aircraft. Brown took control of the aircraft back and rolled out on the next target heading while Johnson continued to visually track the missile. Stone’s chaff broke the missile lock and it went ballistic just 500 feet behind the aircraft. At this point, the AAA was extremely heavy and both pilots could see the torrent of shells going past the aircraft even after the tracers had burned out.

Brown transferred the aircraft back to Johnson for the last release since the majority of the intensifying AAA seemed to be coming from the right side. Just as Burgh released the final weapon, the crew detected another SAM launch at their 4 o’clock position. Johnson broke away from both the SAM and the AAA, as Stone initiated jamming and released chaffed. The missile appeared to drift aft on the canopy and then disappeared above Walla 64’s altitude.

In the impromptu battle, Walla 64 defeated four SAMs and heavy AAA to successfully release 23 of 24 JDAMs against the six GPS jamming towers and associated equipment in the Baghdad area. Post-strike Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) revealed four targets completely destroyed and one tower with light damage. No jamming indications were received from the targets in subsequent days and the GPS jamming systems were assessed as ineffective or destroyed.

On April 7, 2003, the same sort of flexible performance permitted a B-1B, Seek and Destroy, to demonstrate just how fast the “kill-chain” could be. It was assigned a new high priority target and twelve minutes later, it put two GBU-31 hard-target penetrator JDAMs on a restaurant where Saddam Hussein and his sons were reported to be. Seek and Destroy was flown by Captain Chris Wachter (aircraft commander) Captain Sloan Hollis (pilot) Lieutenant Colonel Fred Swan (offensive Weapons Systems Officer) and Lieutenant Joe Runci, (defensive Weapon System Officer) As it happened, the infamous father and sons team had just left, but the B-1B went on to attack 17 more targets.

There were literally scores of similar missions in which the B-1B crews skillfully used its much maligned electronic suites to overcome Iraqi defenses and take out Iraqi targets. There was nothing in the skies over Baghdad to compare with it, and the Bone will reign as the USAF’s primary bomber for decades to come.

Reprinted by Permission of Walter Boyne. First appeared in Flight Journal, April 2005.