What a Former Member of the U.S. Air Force Thinks of the B-1 Bomber and Its History: Commonly referred to as the “Bone,” the Rockwell B-1 Lancer is the only supersonic bomber in service with the United States. Rounding out the U.S. bomber inventory, which also includes the B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit, the B-1 can hit Mach 1.2 – an impressive feat given the Bone’s capacity to carry a 25-ton payload.
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Despite impressive credentials, the B-1 almost never entered service. Indeed, the program was actually canceled, before a former B-film actor stepped in to salvage the B-1.
In the 1950s, the USAF first began seeking a new bomber, something with the range and payload of the B-52, yet with the speed of the Convair B-58 Hustler. The North American B-70 Valkyrie – a six-engine bomber with Mach 3 speed and a 70,000-foot service ceiling – was chosen. However, advancements in Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), made the Valkyrie’s high-altitude flight profile more precarious, forcing the jet to operate at a lower altitude.
Yet, at low altitudes, the Valkyrie suffered from higher aerodynamic draw, which limited the jet to subsonic speed and a somewhat short range, making the Valkyrie less effective than the existing B-52. The Valkyrie program was canceled.
B-1: Other Aircraft Tried to Fill the Void
A variety of programs and aircraft were implemented to supplement the B-52, which was not ideally suited for low-level bombing runs. Penetrators, like the F-111 Aardvark, were introduced. Studies were commenced –hoping to find a long-term solution – including the Subsonic Low-Altitude Bomber (SLAB), Advanced Manned Precision Strike System (AMPSS), and the Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA) – a program Rockwell engineers jokingly referred to as “America’s Most Studied Aircraft,” which called for a high-speed, high-altitude bomber. Eventually, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who preferred ICMBs to strategic bombers, limited the AMSA program.
Russian Intelligence Advanced the Design
President Richard Nixon regenerated AMSA, and in 1969 the USAF requested proposals for a bomber consistent with AMSA’s requirements. North American Rockwell won the contract over Boeing and General Dynamics and began work on the B-1. Prototypes were developed through the 1970s. The design of the new bomber shared commonality with the F-111 Aardvark and the canceled B-70 Valkyrie; the B-1 had an escape capsule and sweep wings. Then, in 1976 the B-1 hit an unexpected snag – a Soviet defector.
In 1976, Soviet fighter pilot Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25 Foxbat in Hakodate, Japan. Belenko was an intelligence goldmine. Among the intelligence Belenko offered was a bit of information that imperiled the B-1 program: the Soviets were developing a new “super-Foxbat” (probably the MiG-31), with a new radar system that would make low-level penetration aircraft (like the B-1) easy to pick off.
Belenko’s insights suggested that the B-1 would be outdated – and redundant with the B-52 – the moment it entered service. Jimmy Carter, then campaigning to be President, said “The B-1 bomber is an example of a proposed system which should not be funded and would be wasteful of taxpayers’ dollars.” It seemed that the B-1’s fate would be decided with the 1976 election.
When Carter was elected, he ordered a review of the B-1 program. Finding the program indulgent, and personally favoring ICBMs (as McNamara had), Carter indeed canceled the program. The B-1 appeared dead.
When President Reagan assumed the presidency, he too reviewed the B-1 program. Reagan, who had campaigned on the idea that Carter was weak with regards to defense – in part because Carter had canceled the B-1 program – was inclined to reanimate the B-1, back from the dead.
In January of 1982, the USAF contracted with Rockwell for 100 brand new B-1 bombers. The price tag: 2 billion dollars. Modifications were made – including a reduced max speed, a reduced radar cross-section, and an increased max takeoff weight – and the revised jet became known as the B-1B.
The resumed B-1 program became a point of contention within Congress, mostly split along partisan lines. Regardless, the B-1B first flew in 1984, and finally, after three decades of studies, debate, politicking, and tinkering, the B-1 entered service.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.