Skip to comments.B-1 Pilots Turn Their Bombsights to the Pacific
Posted on 04/09/2012 9:37:08 PM PDT by sukhoi-30mki
B-1 Pilots Turn Their Bombsights to the Pacific
As the Pentagon turns more of its attention toward the Pacific Rim in an attempt to keep up with China, here's what the new realignment of forces means for pilots of America's largest (and least known) bomber force.
One of the hottest topics in the defense and diplomatic worlds is the Obama administration's "rebalancing" of U.S. interests toward Asia. The new focus is a slate of military and geopolitical strategies meant as a hedge against China, and to a lesser extent its client, North Korea. But what does it mean for the armed forces when the White House focuses its gaze on a new part of the world, and a new foe?
When a pair of B-1 Lancer pilots visited Popular Mechanics offices last week, the talk turned to the rebalance and how it will affect their jobs. The B-1 Lancer is a supersonic bomber that carries twice the payload of a B-52. Its three bomb bays can carry long-range missiles, precision JDAMs (Joint Direction Attack Munitions), sea mines, and "dumb" bombs. The Air Force also equipped the aircraft with modern targeting pods that can watch over a wide area or focus on an individual person on foot. "B-1s have dropped more bombs in America's last three wars than any other aircraft," says U.S. Air Force Col. David Been, commander of the 7th bomber wing.
By examining how the work of B-1 crews is changing, it's possible to see how this AsiaPacific strategy is influencing the militaryand get a glimpse of what a conflict with China might look like.
An Enemy That Could Shoot Back
After 9/11, the Pentagon's focus was fixed on small wars, counterinsurgency tactics, and ways to keep ground forces safe from asymmetric attacks such as roadside bombs. America's high-tech weapons were used against low-tech targets: Aircraft built to dogfight Soviet fighters scanned convoy routes for IEDs; tank-killing helicopters fired missiles at mud huts; submarines launched cruise missiles against terrorist training camps.
Now, though, the Pentagon has been tasked with keeping up with China's ambitious militarization. The Chinese military has invested billions in aircraft, long-range missiles, submarines, anti-ship missiles, and air defense missiles, all meant to keep the American military from gaining access to the South China Sea and, increasingly, the Pacific.
Focusing the Pentagon's attention on the Pacific Rim will present unique challenges for the Air Force. Unlike Marine units (who will be stationed in a new base in Australia) and Navy ships (that will stage in Singapore), combat aircraft will have a role that's much different from their current missions in Afghanistan.
The Lancer was fielded in the 1980s to dash toward a target at low altitudes, deliver ordnance on a specific target, and get away. The Lancer can also keep up with non-stealth-fighter escorts to deliver added punch to the strike missions they conduct. "As we rebalance, we're going back to what the B-1 was designed to do," Been says.But in Asia, unlike in Afghanistan, the B-1 would be up against an enemy that could shoot back at high-flying aircraft. The Lancers can dodge and duck antiaircraft missilesas a pilot, Been has ducked missiles over Bosnia and Baghdadbut they're not designed to penetrate areas guarded by state-of-the art radar, missiles, and aircraft. "We are not Night One aircraft, meaning we don't penetrate enemy radar and kick down the door," Been says. F-22 Raptors and B-2 bombers would need to take out air-defense targets (radar, airfields, and so on) before more vulnerable bombers like the B-1 could join the fight. But the U.S. has just 188 F-22s and 20 B-2s.
The Air Force has found a role for B-1s during the early phase of an air war. The large bomb bays of B-1s can accommodate as many as 24 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) that can fire from more than 200 miles away. These missiles use GPS and inertial navigation to deliver 2250 pounds of explosives on a target. "There's a huge emphasis in stand-off weapons training," Been says. "We're not going in with the F-22s, but those JASSMs are very important in defeating an anti-access challenge."
In 2013 the airplane will also receive extended-range JASSM with a new engine that can reach 600 miles. "The B-1 will be the only one with the extended-range JASSM for a few years," Been says.
A Bomber's Guide to Ground War
These days, a Lancer takes off in Afghanistan with three to five tasking orderssay, escorting a convoy, supporting a coalition move through a village, and conducting surveillance on a insurgent bomb maker. The bomb bay is loaded with a mix of weapons that could come in handy500-pound and 2000-pound bombs, mostly. These are the tools of close air support. But a ground-support mission over well-defended airspace will require a much different approach in pace, planning, and weaponry.
But the most valuable piece of equipment is the B-1's Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod. This system delivers real-time infrared video imagery of a target that can be beamed to troops on the ground or used to deliver a GPS-guided weapon from the Lancer. Been says the targeting pod is mounted on one side of the aircraftB-1 pilots must constantly wheel the aircraft in circles to keep the precision targeting system in place. This eats up fuel, but tanking is not a problem in a place without antiair capacity. It would be a problem over China or North Korea.
Close air support remains a vital part of B-1 Lancer training. In fact, the impact of a B-1 on a ground war is hard to overestimate. The airplane can deliver bombs in specific patterns and time sequences. One favorite technique is dubbed the five of dice: four 500-pound bombs dropped in a square, with a 2000-pound-bomb landing smack in the middle. It's death and demoralization for any concentration of enemy troops caught within the points of impact. But the precision weapons onboard a Lancer can also be directed at a single vehicle for a precision strike.
Capt. Alicia "Ladle" Datzman, who trains Lancer pilots at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas says that the training cycle for B-1 pilots includes plenty of close air support exercises. As pilots get closer to deployment in Afghanistan, the training focuses more on maintaining overwatch for troops in combat. Yet the ability to hunt moving targets translates to a future conflict in Asia. "B-1s went from preplanned targets to a more dynamic environment," Datzman says. "The kill chain can be adapted to maritime targets."
Killing Ships and Buried Targets
With the attention moving toward the Pacific, the Air Force is eager to prove that it can bring something to a maritime fight. For the B-1, that means demonstrating that the close air support techniques it learned in Afghanistan can be applied to hunting ships.
To understand how, consider how the 500-pound Mark 82 JDAM strikes a target. The sniper targeting pod sends the target's coordinates, speed, and bearing to the smart bomb. When the JDAM gets close to the target it opens its eye and readjusts for a direct hit. "Whether that's a suburban pickup truck or a ship, it doesn't matter," Been says.
Potential threats in the Pacific include small ships that can dart from hidden spots along a coastline to fire missiles at Marine landing craft or Navy ships. A B-1 overhead could spot and destroy these threatsso long as aircraft like the B-2 went ahead and cleared the way.
Buried targets on land are another potential B-1 target. Lancers can carry BLU-109 penetrating bombs that can burrow into a bunker before exploding. Many bunkers in places such as North Korea and China can withstand a Blu-109. But the B-1 pilots say their targeting software, developed in a partnership with DITRA, can deliver multiple bombs on the same spot. By hammering a weakened spot within seconds of impacts, B-1s can neutralize even deep bunkers.
B-1 Lancers from Ellsworth Air Force Base got a trial run at a larger war during the air campaign against Libya. Been says the airplanes were bound for Libya (whose air defenses had been degraded by then) within 42 hours of being notified. Two Lancers hit 50 targets, landed to rearm and refuel, and took off for home. On the way there, they hit another 50 targets.
The combat runs proved that B-1 Lancers have a role to play at least until the Air Force decides what it wants from a next-generation bomber. The flexibility, and a massive bomb bay, may give this cold war airplane the flexibility it will need to be relevant in the 21st century. "You can use the Lancer for every phase of a war," Datzman says. "Even as targets change."
U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Corey Hook
A B-1B Lancer at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Daktoa. Last year airmen at Ellsworth launched for strikes against Libya within 40 hours after being told of the mission.
The thing that makes the B1 cool is that it can project power anywhere in the world in probably 48 hours or less, and while everyone is watching the fireworks, the rest of us are already on station or on the way
Great pic! Ellsworth? Thought it looked familiar.
ah yes Dak To. Great NCO club.
A truly amazing aircraft.
How many of these bombers do we have?
66 as per its operator
I'll take a wild guess and say not nearly enough.
We can thank President Reagan for the ones we do have.
I still think it is one of the most beautiful birds out there.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Jimmy Carter still sucks as bad as the day he canceled the original B-1 Bomber.
We can thank President Reagan for the ones we do have.
Yes, President Reagan brought them back after Carter refused to fund them.
FYI- Google has 100 built.
Very impressive photo.
Thanks for the info.
So the Bone is essentially an A-10 with 100 bombs on board.
Still the prettiest plane in the inventory.
I wonder if you can sling rotary launchers in the bomb bays and fill ‘em up with Harpoons? Just think, a squadron of B-1Bs with that sort of load out could lay waste to most of the Chinese surface fleet...
Probably PO the USN, though.
They already carry CRLs in the bomb bays. So they could feasibly mount Harpoons.
They have modified B-52s to carry harpoons in a maritime patrol role...carrying 12 harpoons each. A B-1b could carry many more and old be a heck of a maritime strike aircraft.
They were looking at a new 16 carry rotary launcher in 2011. If they implement those it woul triple the number of weapons it could launch up to 48.
Here’s a link to the EW rotary launchers.