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In War With Iran, B-1s Would Be Vital

3 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
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.

Politics Daily's B-1 Series

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.''
Filed Under: Iran, Military

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23 Comments

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timberstorm

Attacking Iran without any lost could be done by taking aircraft from the military boneyard for some retired jets which have been modified to serve as drones meaning they're UCAVs, first would be F-111G Wild Weasel aircraft to take care of Iranian AWACS and ground radar stations for their SAMs, then you take a 10-12 B-1Bs and upgrade them with Pratt & Whitney F-119 engines developed for the F-22 Raptor which would allow the B-1Bs to fly supersonic without afterburners to extend their range, the F-111G do their job and clear the way for the trailing B-1Bs.

November 25 2010 at 7:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mtfoster

If we had not appeased Hitler and had kicked him out of Poland like we should have with our strong military...oh, that's right. We were too busy picking up the pieces from a economic depression brought on by the greed and averice of Wall Street and their Republican bretheren in Congress and the White House. It took the Democrats and a World War to bring the economy back. Sound familiar? Keep the B-1. We are going to need it to kick some butt (China, Iran, Syria, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea or others). Be careful when you lie down with dogs...you'll get up with fleas. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

November 23 2010 at 9:27 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mtfoster's comment
sawmill4244

mtfoster: Careful now----The British were the appeasers. We did not want war and we did not have a strong military. The economic depression was brought on by greedy Americans and corrupt politicians -- just like today. Watch out with those party labels--not the same today and as back then.

November 24 2010 at 3:40 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Wolmers1965

Ok ... let us put Obama bashing aside for a little and focus on just being patriotic Americans concernd about the security of our great nation and the prosperity, safety, productivity and happiness of our diverse people in the good old USA! The B1 Bomber is an excellent platform, with great capabilities that we still need ... because we have built nothing to replace it, BUT we have many upgrades and new technology being added to this outstanding air force platform. You need to study what it can do, before we criticize. The GI 'grunts' fighting, bleeding and dying in Afghanistan depend on it when they are in a jam! Please read up on this! BUT ... here is the question of the day, which no one ever asks or answers. Why are we continuously at war since 1948 after WWII? ... and what make sus the best fighting force on earth. Ask any college or professional sports team ... practice, practice practice ... new technology & new methodology and new equipment is constantly being tested under battle conditions in actual combat life & death situations! No other nation even comes close ... except the UK. One more comment ... the American fighting man, marine, soldier, sailor, airman, national guard or coast gaurd has never suffered defeat!!! The politicians cause us to lose wars. In Vietnam, the grunts on the ground won every battle ... but the war was lost! Like Iraq, it was an illegal and immoral war anyway. Mr.B

November 23 2010 at 6:58 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Wolmers1965's comment
bimbrk

Not the only question of the day: How did we offend the Taliban whom we (CIA) helped organize and supply against the Soviets? How did we offend Saudis and their friends? 'And why did we go to war in Vet Nam when our friends told us it was unnessary based on the pretexts we offered. Just three of many questions. In general... we (our Government and it's allies in the corporate world) had designs on their assets. Now our countrymen may be underinformed but theirs are not. Atlantic Monthly detailed an account of two meetings between the US Ambassador to Iraq and Saddam. It covers the conversations in part where it becomes clear that the US is giving permission to Sadam to invade Kuwait. US oil companies had for a long time been trying to get control of BP's Kuwait oil operations. As an ally to Sadam it would put them closer than previously possible. This has been our MO since before 1948. Now is it any wonder no one wants to address the question?

November 23 2010 at 11:02 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
jbsides

Dave, Tony, Paul: thank you for your combined 95 years of dedicated design effort on this magnificent aircraft! If only the American public knew what you went though. Tony: great pod. JB

November 23 2010 at 6:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ghawk55

Of coruse it's America's duty to attack and kill everyone that dosen't think like us or act like us. It's Darwinisum. Only the strongest, smartest and swiftest that survive. If we didn't drop bombs on everyone. The world would think we're weak. Next thing you know other countries would have our money and folks would be coming across our borders taking our land and jobs.

November 23 2010 at 6:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
12

This is madness.. Listen to Ron Paul: We have bases all around the world. The military establishment and other nations and especially AIPAC is pushing us to War. This will cost US lives and money which is borrowed from the Chinese and the Saudis. We need to worry about our kids future and get this nation back in track. The Chinese and the Russians should be our focus. We can't go around being the policeman of the world. We have millions of people of unemployed and things are not getting any better. It is does not matter if Republican or the Democrats are in power. They are both controlled by AIPAC and other interest groups. Let's not start another war like the Iraq War. If we attack Iran, it will affect all of us and there is no benefit to US and our true allies.

November 23 2010 at 6:26 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to 12's comment
bimbrk

We don't have bases all around the world! The bases you think we have are shared on other people's soil, in other people's country's and we are their guests.

November 23 2010 at 9:39 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
ElMattador

Didn't they just say cyber warfare is integral in the future? If we build a fleet of drone bombers, hackers will just turn them around and use them against us! The concept has a moronic flaw. I want a man behind the trigger who can think on the fly and operate independently, it's safer AND more effective.

November 23 2010 at 6:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Margaret

If anyone wants to attack Iran, let Israel do it. They are the ones threatened more than we are. They have a military force and an air force. I'm sure they can manage.

November 23 2010 at 4:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
stalb427

Of course the US wants to attack Iran and has wanted to for years but unlike other countries in the region they havent given any real cause for it. Its somewhat funny to see all the attention on Irans nuke program coming from some of the largest nuke producing countries in the world, seems like they want it all to themselves and how dare Iran consider itself equal and produce its own. And how can anyone believe that the US wants to instill peace anywhere? Being the largest manufacturer and exporter of weapons in the world, keeping the wars going keeps the US in business. Even the area I live in thrives of war. 80-90% of the local/small factories/metal shops business comes from a builder of military vehicles so even my paycheck is blood money. And if that company were to not need to build military equipment the entire economy of this area would crash. So time to pull our heads out of the sand Americans and realize what we really are, a country founded on blood shed and driven by it.

November 23 2010 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pygmypinko

This series seems like a paid advertisement for a weapons system we don't need. In an age of cruise missiles and Predator drones, the primary function of long range bombers is to line the pockets of defense contractors and serve as a jobs program in certain congressional districts. As we look for ways to balance the budget (once the recession is over), the B-1 should be one of the first things on the chopping block. It's a great bomber, but we don't need bombers anymore. With today's technology, we could make fantastic catapults, but catapults are obsolete. So are bombers.

November 23 2010 at 2:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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