The Bone is Back
Too trouble-prone for nuclear alert and sidelined in the first Gulf War, the B-1 is today the busiest bomber in the fleet.
- By David Noland
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
(Page 3 of 4)
Unlike its pilots, however, the B-1's ground crews have a decidedly mixed opinion of their complex, finicky, and trouble-prone charge. "It's a love-hate relationship," concedes Staff Sergeant Walker Grant, a Seventh Bomb Wing crew chief at Dyess. "It's a high-performance vehicle. You're always tinkering. Comparing what it takes to keep a B-1 in the air to, say, a C-130 is like comparing a NASCAR racer to a go-cart." On many Bone missions, it's standard procedure to keep a second aircraft standing by with engines running in case the primary aircraft has some last-second problem.
To keep glitches to a minimum, Dyess ground crews ritually rub certain spots on their B-1s before each takeoff. (Just which spot depends on the particular aircraft.) "I've never been in a culture as superstitious as Bone crew chiefs," admits one of them. Even when everything's working, about 90 man-hours of labor are needed to prepare a B-1 for a training sortie—double the number for a B-52.
Because of its very shaky start and high maintenance, the Bone had very low combat readiness rates during its early years on nuclear alert. The nadir came in 1990, when a series of engine fires grounded the entire fleet just before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Bone pilots watched in envy and disgust as the B-52s flew off to the Gulf and glory.
But even had its engines been reliable and its defensive avionics working, the B-1 simply had no role to play in the first Iraq war. It was strictly a nuclear bomber, never intended for limited conventional wars, and not even capable of dropping conventional weapons. "It was horrible," recalls Colonel Jeff Taliaferro, a Bone pilot at the time who later flew the second Desert Fox mission. "Most of us had never been in combat, and we really wanted to go. When the nation's at war, you want to be part of it. The whole B-1 crew force was very disappointed."
After Desert Storm, the B-1 began the remarkable resurrection to its current status as America's go-to bomber. The first change in its fortunes was the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which made the Bone's original nuclear deterrent role moot. Responding to the new strategic reality, the Air Force began to convert the B-1 fleet to carry conventional weapons. (The START arms reduction treaty later made the changeover mandatory.)
The following year, to compensate for the B-1's intensive maintenance requirements, the Air Force put 21 Bones on "attrition reserve," reducing the number of operational B-1s from 74 to 53. This allowed the available maintenance money, spare parts, and manpower to be spread over fewer aircraft. (Later, most of the "attrition-reserve" aircraft were retired altogether.) And a long-term program was initiated to improve the aircraft's computers, avionics, and weapons.
By the time of the 1998 Desert Fox operation, the upgrade was completed. Mission-capable rates had risen to the 70 percent range. And B-1 pilots, long steeped in SAC-style, low-level training, were now proficient in a whole new style of bombing: precision strikes with conventional weapons. This time when Saddam turned ornery, the Bones were ready.
The Desert Fox success earned the B-1 a big role in the Kosovo, Serbia conflict a few months later. Flying almost daily from Royal Air Force Base Fairford in England and using the same Mark 82 500-pounders and carpet-bombing tactic used in Desert Fox, a half-dozen B-1s dropped 20 percent of the total tonnage released by Allied air forces over Kosovo, while flying just two percent of the strike sorties. The B-1's first Kosovo mission, a raid on the Novi Sad oil refinery, was a baptism by fire; both aircraft were attacked by a SAM-6 missile. But the B-1s' new radar decoys, towed by the bombers on long cables, worked. The SAMs nailed the decoys, not the Bones.