Warplanes: How The Bone Beat The BUFF


May 20, 2016: The American air war against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) since August 2014 has shown that what worked earlier, particularly in Afghanistan, still works. That is heavy bombers, in this case the B-1B, deliver a disproportionate number of the bombs. In the ISIL campaign over Iraq and Syria B-1Bs flew five percent of the sorties but delivered 35 percent of the smart bombs. In 2001 the B-52 was doing this but the B-52 is much older and is no longer the cheapest and most reliable heavy bomber for this sort of thing. No B-52s have been used in the war against ISIL. The next most prolific bomber is the F-15E, which could be called “B-1 lite” because the F-15E is a bomber version of the F-15 fighter and can stay in the air nearly as long as a B-1B and carries over six tons of smart bombs. F-15Es flew 20 percent of the sorties against ISIL and delivered 25 percent of the smart bombs. Thus these two bombers together flew 25 percent of the sorties and delivered 60 percent of the smart bombs. The next most productive warplanes were the F-16 (22 percent of sorties and 16 percent of smart bombs) and the A-10 (17 percent of sorties and 15 percent of smart bombs). Even the F-22 got into action, carrying out two percent of the sorties and delivering two percent of the smart bombs. UAVs (MQ-1 and MQ-9) flew 33 percent of the sorties and delivered seven percent of the smart bombs and missiles. The UAVs were used mostly for surveillance and reconnaissance, but were armed in order to deal with a target that might get way before a manned aircraft could be called in

The B-1B came into its own after 2003, doing excellent service in Iraq and Afghanistan as a “bomb truck” that can stay in the air all day and get anywhere it is needed quickly. The U.S. is the only user of the B-1B, and in 2012 the 10,000th mission was flown by one of the 66 B-1Bs then still in service. Not bad for a hundred aircraft that entered service in 1985. The last one was delivered in 1988. By 2000 there were 93 left and in 2003 33 of them were retired. Many of these were cannibalized for spare parts.

There are only 65 of the "Bones" (from B-One) left now, and none are doing what they were designed for; flying low and fast into heavily defended enemy territory during the Cold War to deliver nuclear weapons. But because the B-1Bs are twenty years younger than the B-52s, they were available for duty as much as the B-52s and became particularly popular over Afghanistan, where higher speed (compared to the B-52) enabled one B-1B to cover the entire country. On a slow day the single B-1B could hustle from one part of the country to deliver a smart bomb or two and then be off to another tense situation on the ground. This was the first sustained use of the B-1B and, by and large, the bomber performed quite well.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq the B-1B got to show its capabilities. While flying only five percent of the sorties, the B-1B delivered 40 percent of the bombs. The 216 ton aircraft can carry 34 tons of bombs in its three bomb bays. It's a 1970s design that entered service just as the Cold War, which it was designed for, ended.

The B-1B used to be more expensive to operate than the older B-52 BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fella) because they hauled around a lot of gear that is not needed for the current counter-terror operations. This was 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 enabled it to travel low and fast, to evade enemy air defenses. New maintenance procedures have eliminated a lot of the need to keep superfluous systems functional. The air force also 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. All this helped bring costs way down. As a result it now costs about 15 percent less per flight hour for the B-1B compared to the B-52 and less than half what it costs for the B-2.

The U.S. Air Force is also upgrading its B-1B heavy bomber fleet, a process that will last until the end of the decade. The 65 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 is being installed to make it easier to find failing components and get them fixed.

One of the more useful upgrades took place in 2008 and a year later 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 B-1Bs, designed to replace the B-52 as America's "nuclear bomber," ended up as a bomb truck, with much of its high-tech gear removed or turned off. In that state the B-1B has proved reliable enough to compete with its older, simpler, cheaper, and still vigorous counterpart.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close