It's one o'clock in the morning on December 17, 1998, a cool crystalline night at Thumrait Air Base in the Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman. Two Rockwell B-1B bombers idle on Runway 17. Cleared for takeoff, the first jet begins to roll, its afterburners washing the rocky desert landscape in a faint orange glow. Quickly gathering speed, the Lancer lifts off the runway and banks into a sharp turn to the right, heading west. Forty-five seconds later, the second B-1B follows. The two jets join up in a loose formation and turn north into the starry blackness.
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For the B-1, this is an historic moment: the long anticipated first combat mission of the complex, expensive, and oft-maligned bomber delivered to the Air Force 13 years earlier. Born amid controversy in the 1960s, twice canceled, and plagued early by technical problems, the B-1 had seemingly gotten lost in the shadows—caught between the Boeing B-52, the iconic bomber of the past, and the Northrop B-2, the stealthy bomber of the future. In 1990, the B-1 had suffered the ultimate humiliation: staying Stateside during the first Gulf War, while the plodding, antique B-52s answered the call to duty.
But now, in Operation Desert Fox, the four-day 1998 air campaign against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the B-1 was finally getting a chance to prove its worth. "Failure was not an option that night," recalls Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Greaney, a back-seat weapon systems operator on the trail aircraft. "We all had very big chips on our shoulders after the Gulf War." The B-1s were to take out the main barracks of Saddam's elite Republican Guard at Al Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. The two big jets would be escorted by a dozen carrier-based fighters and an EA-6B Prowler.
Joining up with the Navy aircraft, the two B-1s crossed the Iraqi border at 26,000 feet and 550 mph. They navigated around an Iraqi SA-2 surface-to-air-missile site, but two more sites, equipped with the more dangerous SA-3 missiles, awaited near Al Kut. Greaney, chewing tobacco and occasionally spitting to the side of his dangling oxygen mask, monitored the SA-3 tracking radars on his instrument panel displays. He watched as the SAM radars flicked on briefly, then shut down, the operators apparently fearful of the radar-homing missiles carried by the EA-6B. He breathed a sigh of relief: No SAMs tonight.
Approaching the target, the B-1 crews watched as orange streaks of anti-aircraft artillery fire arced far below them. Seven miles out from Al Kut, Greaney's B-1, nicknamed "Watchdog," released its load of 64 500-pound "dumb" bombs. The drop took only five seconds; the B-1 immediately racked into a steep 3-G right bank and headed back toward Thumrait.
It hadn't been a perfect mission—sand in the bomb release mechanism had caused 20 bombs to hang up—but all in all, things had gone smoothly. After landing around 6:30 a.m., with the sun just rising off the left wing, Greaney crawled into his tent to sleep, exhausted and exhilarated. Not until the next night did he see the satellite photo that showed a tight cluster of marks centered on the barracks, with nearly a dozen direct hits. In the close, competitive world of bomber crews, Greaney and his mates had earned bragging rights.
For the B-1, the destruction of the Republican Guard barracks that night was the first step back toward respectability. (Two other Desert Fox missions were also successful.) Subsequent combat in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq confirmed its comeback. And last year, the B-1's tale of redemption reached an unlikely zero-to-hero ending: In Southwest Asia, the former Rodney Dangerfield of warplanes became the bomber of choice. Since April 2006, the fancy $2 billion stealth bombers have sat meekly in climate-controlled Missouri hangars or deployed to Guam for training exercises, and the B-52s have rested their weary combat wings Stateside, while B-1s have been flying almost daily against the Taliban. Tony Straw, a B-1 pilot with the Seventh Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, says proudly, "We're now in demand."
The B-1 was born in a time of stormy debate about strategic bombing philosophy. Manned bombers or intercontinental ballistic missiles? Penetrate or stand off? High altitude or low? The first casualty of the debate was also the Air Force's first stab at a B-52 replacement: the XB-70, a high-altitude Mach 3 marvel. Its radar cross-section and infrared signature would have made the aircraft an easy target for a new generation of Soviet missiles, however, and in 1961, Air Force planners turned their focus to a low-level, under-the-radar bomber. Numerous design studies ensued, with acronyms like SLAB, ERSA, LAMP, AMPSS, and finally, in 1964, AMSA, for Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft. (Wags said that it stood for "America's Most Studied Aircraft.") But Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a believer in ballistic missiles rather than manned bombers, limited AMSA funding to a trickle. Worried that the B-52s would start suffering structural failures before a new bomber could replace them, the Air Force ordered an interim solution: the General Dynamics FB-111, which presaged many features of the bomber-to-come.
The new Nixon administration, however, revived the strategic bomber design, renamed it the B-1, and selected North American Rockwell to build it. The bomber on Rockwell's drawing board was in every way different from a B-52: a highly maneuverable Mach 2.2 low-level penetrator packed with advanced electronic countermeasures. Its mission: a terrain-hugging, under-the-radar nuclear attack on Moscow. And the B-1 looked like a weapon of mass destruction.
Its blended wing/body design and sinuous fuselage, shaped by the area rule, cut supersonic drag. The variable-geometry wing swept forward to 15 degrees for takeoff and landing, and back to a dart-like 67.5 degrees for supersonic dash. Its advances included terrain-following radar that enabled hands-off flying as low as 400 feet in any weather. To relieve the structural stresses of low-level turbulence on the long slim fuselage, small canard vanes below the cockpit automatically swiveled in response to gusts. To stay within center-of-gravity limits during wing sweep or weapons release, an automatic fuel-balancing system rapidly redistributed fuel among various tanks. A complex Defensive Avionics System was intended to detect and jam enemy radars.