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.

In a typical two-ship formation, B-1Bs fly a 1998 training mission near Meteor Crater in Arizona, one of the few holes in the ground bigger than a B-1 could make. (Ted Carlson/
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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.

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.

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