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 4 of 4)
Toward the end of the Kosovo campaign, the B-1B tried out a new Air Force tactic called time-sensitive targeting. Instead of bombing pre-arranged targets, the B-1 acted as a "roving linebacker," loitering over the battle area and awaiting target assignments from ground controllers. The B-1's speed, agility, payload capacity, and endurance made it ideal for this new kind of aerial warfare, enabling the Bone to strike multiple targets, on demand, during a single mission. Such a tactical role, of course, had never been envisioned by the B-1's designers. Yet here it was, an erstwhile intercontinental nuclear bomber acting like an F-16.
In Afghanistan in 2001, the B-1 finally put it all together. The new roving-linebacker role was a perfect fit for the Afghan theater, with its small mobile bands of enemies and ever-shifting battlefields. And the new 2,000-pound JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) guided bomb, steered by GPS and accurate to within about 30 feet, proved to be the right answer for U.S. troops on the ground asking for close air support. JDAM-equipped B-1s destroyed the caves and training camps of the Taliban, with devastating effect. Air Force brass at the time credited the B-1 with a "very big part" in the rout.
By the time of the initial 2003 air campaign against Iraq, the B-1 and its JDAMs had mastered precision-strike-on-demand. During the first month of the war, a tag-team of 11 B-1s was over Iraq virtually 24/7, hitting a wide variety of targets within minutes of getting the call.
The Iraq war has since devolved into an urban civil and sectarian conflict in which aerial bombardment has little role, though on January 10 this year, two B-1s, joined by four F-16s, dropped 20 tons of bombs on what were believed to be militant hideouts and storehouses just south of Baghdad. And back in Afghanistan, the Bone has been raining JDAMs on a resurgent Taliban with such success that the B-2s and B-52s were sent home.
"In this war, at this time, the B-1 is the obvious choice," Colonel Jeffry Smith said last year, when he was commander of the 28th Bomb Wing, the B-1 unit currently deployed in the Middle East. "We're the one airframe that can carry all kinds of munitions, in large quantities, with a long loiter time. We can carry 500-pounders in the front bay, thousand-pounders in the middle, and 2,000-pounders in the back. You've always got the right bomb for the job, with a minimum of collateral damage. That's a great luxury for a commander." Recent civilian casualties in Afghanistan, however, are a grim reminder that even with highly accurate just-the-right-size bombs, targeting errors remain a serious problem.
Though it has found new esteem among Air Force brass, the B-1 may remain in the shadows of the B-52 and B-2, as far as the public is concerned. The Bone just missed a shot at stardom in 2003, during the initial strikes on Baghdad. Patrolling over western Iraq on April 7, the B-1B "Search and Destroy" got an urgent call from a nearby E-3 AWACS: a "high-priority leadership target" in Baghdad. It was The Big One, the AWACS operator reported. Translation: Saddam Hussein.
The jet banked sharply toward Baghdad and accelerated to Mach 0.9. Twelve minutes later, four 2,000-pound JDAMs slammed into the restaurant Saddam had been observed entering 47 minutes earlier. But the dictator had apparently decided to eat and run; by the time the bombs hit, he was gone.
Although the mission failed, it was a dramatic demonstration of the B-1's speed, range, flexibility, and targeting precision. And the Bone had not even flexed its muscles: A full-afterburner Mach 1.2 dash to the target would have gotten the bombs there six minutes sooner. Would those six minutes have made the difference? We'll never know.