As an interim measure, the Cold War-era strategic bomber will fill in for the even older B-52 and the B-21 Raider, which has not yet entered service.
Old Bomber, Fast Tricks?
Although the Cold War-era strategic bomber enjoyed a resurgence in Afghanistan as a quick-response close air support platform, the bomber is unlikely to survive a high-end conflict against a peer rival with a dedicated and robust anti-air capability. The Air Force has already begun retiring many Lancers, sending them to rest in boneyards. But, equipped with new hypersonic weaponry, they could enjoy another lease on life.
B-1Bs armed with hypersonic missiles would indeed allow the United States to keep step with Russia and China, but they would also fill in for two of the Air Force’s other bombers.
One of those platforms, the venerable B-52, will soon undergo several enhancements, including a fleet-wide engine replacement and improvements to the bomber’s avionics, ejection seats, and defensive capabilities. The B-52 modernizations are extensive, requiring probably months-long periods of inactivity for parts of the fleet.
The other bomber platform rearmed B-1B Lancers would provide cover for aren’t even here yet — the B-21 Raider. The next-generation stealthy bomber will likely be the stealthiest airplane ever built to date, with a stealth package reportedly two generations more advanced than the similar B-2 Spirit bomber. And though five Raider airframes are in production, they are not expected to be fully operational until the mid-2020s.
During a talk with reporters, a former commander of Dyess Air Force Base in Texas explained more about the Air Force’s B-1B Lancer plan, saying that with the close of Cold War hostilities and treaty limitations with Russia on bomber capabilities, the B-1B’s role as a long-range nuclear bomber became less relevant.
However, the B-1B retains six hardpoints on the airframe underside for attaching weaponry, including hypersonic missiles. Furthermore, given the large size of some of the United States hypersonic missiles — about 20 feet long and around 5,000 pounds — the B-1B Lancer will be one of the few platforms that could carry that payload.
The bomber’s six harpoons can be equipped with dual-missile pylons, arming the Lancer with a dozen hypersonic missiles externally plus an unspecified number of missiles internally.
Though alarm bells have been rung about Russia and China’s hypersonic missile projects, the United States is also making progress in the field. For example, the Air Force recently successfully flight-tested their Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, paving the way for future hypersonic missile development.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.