Warplanes: Rebuilding A Better Bone


July 25, 2011: The U.S. Air Force is upgrading its B-1B ("Bone") heavy bomber fleet over the next eight years. The 67 aircraft will get new cockpits (with color flat screens to replace the current monochrome ones) along with digital communications (so that data, including pictures and videos) can be quickly shared with other aircraft, as well as ground units and ships. Finally, a new electronic test system will be installed, to make it easier to find failing components, and get them fixed.

There have been several upgrades to the B-1Bs over the last few years. Three years ago, a B-1B used its newly installed Sniper targeting pod in combat for the first time. These pods enable the aircraft crew to see, in great detail, what's happening on the ground, even when the aircraft is flying at 6.8 kilometers (20,000 feet) altitude. For example, the pod users can tell if someone down there is dressed as a man or a woman, or is carrying a weapon.

The air force has also changed how it maintains its aircraft, in an effort to increase the number available for combat. Of particular concern were some persistent maintenance problems with the B-1B. Over the last year, the air force has raised the B-1B availability rate (aircraft you can send into action, including some with minor maintenance issues) from under 50 percent to over 60 percent

 The B-1Bs are used to drop smart bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are particularly popular in Afghanistan, because you can put one in the air, and it can cover the entire country. While the B-1B is twice as expensive to operate (per hour in the air) than the B-52, the B-1B can more quickly move to a new target over Afghanistan. Combat sorties average about 11 hours.

The B-1B is more expensive to operate because they haul around a lot of gear that is not needed for the current counter-terror operations. This is the stuff that can break down and cause the aircraft to be grounded until the problem is fixed. The additional gear on the B-1B enables it to travel at high speed and very low altitude, to evade enemy air defenses. New maintenance procedures eliminated a lot of the need to keep unneeded systems functional. The air force went looking for new maintenance solutions. For example, they paid close attention to new techniques developed by commercial airlines and air forces in other countries.


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