A U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities might look just like this: a B-1bomber lancing along just above the desert floor at 900 feet per second, ducking behind mountains and beneath ridgelines to hide from enemy radar, carrying a bellyful of 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs.
Guided by radar linked to auto-pilot, the bomber is yanked up and down as it thunders over the rugged terrain at a precise altitude – 1,000 feet, for this training run over West Texas, but it can be set to a mere 200 feet above the ground. Even at 1,000 feet, impact with the ground is three seconds away if something goes wrong.
At this low level and high speed (see video at right), the bomber is less vulnerable to the kind of air defense missile systems that Iran is now building
– and other countries like China have been deploying extremely sophisticated versions
of their own. Down low, the bomber can hide in the "ground clutter'' where radar reflects off trees, boulders and hills.
In military action against Iran, which President Barack Obama has kept as an option to prevent the Islamic republic from building a nuclear weapons arsenal, the fleet of 66 B-1 bombers might also be used in a stand-off role. The bombers' intercontinental range would enable them to swarm on Iran from all directions, firing precision satellite-guided air-to-surface missiles
from as much as 500 miles away from Iranian targets while cruise missiles and stealthy B-2 bombers penetrate Iran's air defenses to strike targets directly.
The Air Force is gambling that the Cold War-era B-1, flying now for a quarter century, can continue to be the mainstay of the U.S. long-range strike capability, a decision it took this summer when it decided not to scrap the bombers. The Air Force had pinned its hopes on development an entirely new "next-generation bomber.'' But Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled that effort last year, amid rising projected costs, technical problems and new questions about whether cheaper unmanned drones should replace manned bombers.
Now, the B-1 is expected to remain fully engaged in air operations through the year 2040, according to Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, Air Force chief of operations and plans. Breedlove said in an interview that the B-1, armed with new sensors, is heavily engaged over Afghanistan, and is being used in maritime surveillance in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. Work is being done to fit the bomber with a "death ray'' laser
to use against ground targets. "It's a premier weapon even in a high-tech fight,'' Breedlove said.
Escape From the Junkyard
It's yet another narrow escape from the junkyard
for the "Bone,'' as it's affectionately known. The B-1 took shape in the late 1960s to replace the B-70 Valkyrie
, a huge titanium bomber meant to evade Soviet defense missiles by attacking at 70,000 feet at three times the speed of sound. That billion-dollar program was canceled in 1961, when intercontinental ballistic missiles were being developed, which seemed to make bombers obsolete. And, the Russians had demonstrated they could shoot down high-flying jets like the U-2.
The B-1 was conceived as an aircraft that could sneak past Russian radars at low level, and billions of dollars were spent on its design. But in 1977 President Jimmy Carter, after numerous delays and cost overruns, canceled development of the B-1 – knowing that the stealthy B-2,
said to be nearly invisible to Soviet radar, was in development. President Ronald Reagan revived the B-1 production line shortly after taking office in 1981, in part to show Moscow he was serious about winning the arms race.
Barely four years later, Reagan's portrayal of the Soviet Union as a threatening military monolith came into doubt when a 19-year-old German
flew a single-engine Cessna deep into Soviet air space – unnoticed by supposedly airtight Soviet air defense radar -- and landed in Red Square, smack beside the Kremlin.
B-1s demonstrated their capabilities in 1999 during the 78-day air war
in Kosovo, in which NATO fought to halt ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by Serb forces under Slobodan Milosevic. U.S. and NATO planes flew against more than a thousand Serb surface-to-air missiles and MiG fighters.
"We were going against triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery) and SAMs; an F-16 was shot down behind us as we went in,'' recalls Air Force Col. David B. Been, a B-1 weapons systems officer (WSO, or "whizzo'') who commands the 7th
Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.
B-1s went into action again in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with four B-1s assigned 96 targets on the opening night of the war and the first daylight bombing of Baghdad a few days later.
"It was heavily defended,'' said Lt. Col. Ty Newman, a B-1 pilot and squadron commander. "We'd get a list of 24 targets and a map of downtown Baghdad and we'd quickly figure out how to get where, which weapons to use, the tactical routing, how to get the weapons [bombs] off in the shortest amount of time. Sometimes we'd be on our way home and we'd get a new list of targets and have to get a [refueling] tanker. It was pretty intense.''
Apart from the B-1, the Air Force carries in its inventory 94 subsonic B-52 bombers, built before 1962, and 20 B-2 "stealth'' bombers, which are too costly to fly in a conflict like Afghanistan where there are no enemy radars to evade. Because of their relatively slow speed, B-52s are not typically used for low-level penetration missions.
Sticking With the B-1
And a new bomber? The Air Force has been scalded by its recent experience with buying long-range manned bombers. After the disaster of the Valkyrie (of the two that were built, one crashed; the other sits in a museum in Dayton, Ohio) its most recent effort, the B-2, was so costly ($2 billion each
) that only 20 were built, out of a fleet that was supposed to number 132.
The Air Force definitely wants a new "strike platform,'' Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said this fall. He was careful to avoid using the word "bomber,'' implicitly acknowledging that the next "bomber'' might be a missile or a robot drone.
"But we are also cautious,'' he went on to say, "not to repeat the painful experience of previous Air Force bomber programs: narrowly focused capabilities, high-risk technologies and high costs ... leading to program cancellations or low inventories.''
Given the budget-cutting mood in Congress and the uncertainty even within the Pentagon about the wisdom of a heavy new investment in a manned bomber, the "Bone'' will be the weapon that presidents turn to in crises.
It's hard work keeping up even with current B-1 requirements. Six-month combat deployments to Afghanistan are hard on the jets – each flight hour requires 47.5 man-hours of repair time – and exhausting for the crews. The bombers' mission capable rates – which measure how often they are ready to fly -- have plummeted from about 70 percent to about 55 percent since 2002, a consequence of their heavy use in southwest Asia and cuts in Air Force personnel, resulting in fewer and less experienced technicians to work on the bombers, according to Maj. Shawnn Martin, maintenance chief at Dyess Air Force Base.
And with wartime deployments, there's scant time left to practice for "big-war'' missions in which the bombers' role is to punch through enemy air defenses and attack his forces, and then provide air support if U.S. ground troops are deployed.
"Anyone can shoot these things straight in,'' Capt. David Grasso, a B-1 pilot, said about the bombs carried by the B-1.
But there's a maddening complexity to a "big-war'' mission like Kosovo, and often little time to plan. The missions would typically be flown by B-1s working in pairs, integrated into an attack "package'' with airborne jammers, escort fighters and other bombers.
"There are mountains, other aircraft flying with you, threats from the ground ... the mission planning is pretty complicated, and getting the refueling plan right, getting the right weapon to the release point on time, deconflicting with the other jet so our bombs don't run into each other. It's complicated, and there's always Murphy's Law at work,'' Grasso said.
That takes constant practice, and there is growing worry within the Air Force that B-1 crews aren't getting enough of it.
"We are gone so much it's hard to find the time to train,'' said Been, who has logged 1,200 combat hours over Iraq and Afghanistan. "My biggest concern is that we lose that ability to knock down the door and have to fight our way in to the target.''
But will that capability really be needed in the decades ahead?
China, for one, already has the ability to target the air bases that U.S. forces would use in Asia – and can hold at risk any aircraft carrier than comes within range. For that reason, many analysts expect a conflict with China would prominently feature cyber warfare, and submarines that are more difficult to detect.
Unmanned drone aircraft and cruise missiles might take the place of costly manned bombers like the B-1. And given the potential cost, a fleet of new manned bombers may never be built.
Given all that, does it really make sense to maintain the B-1 fleet?
"We keep thinking each war is going to be the last,'' Been said, when I asked him about this. "Kosovo – who'd have thought? Definitely for the foreseeable future there's reason to continue. With more and more advanced weaponry being proliferated, fighters and very, very long-range SAMs – I think it'd be naïve to say there's no need for kinetic (shooting) operations in the future.''