America’s B-1B Lancer, sometimes called “The Bone,” is our nation’s only supersonic heavy payload bomber. With a top speed of around Mach 1.25, the bomber can keep pace with many fighters, and thanks to its swing-wing design, the massive aircraft can maneuver a bit like a fighter as well — at least, as much like a fighter as physics will allow with 75,000 pounds of ordnance in its belly. Despite being the only bomber of its kind in America’s arsenal, the aging platform has long been slated for retirement sometime in the 2020s, with the forthcoming (and secretive) B-21 Raider expected to replace both the Lancer and the B-2 Spirit once it starts rolling off the production lines.
But despite these plans, repeated efforts have been introduced to keep the mach-speed capable B-1B flying for years to come. First, Boeing filed a patent that would allow the B-1B to be converted into a supersonic gunship, delivering similar amounts of firepower offered by the famed AC-130 Spooky Gunship at more than three times the speed. Of course, there are a number of issues with the concept; even with its swing-wings, the B-1B’s stall speed is still rather high for close air support operations, and its cost to operate per hour makes it a poor choice for long-loiter missions.
The Pentagon seemed to agree, as no progress appears to have been made on the B-1B Gunship front. Now, however, another possibility has emerged from the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, partnered with the 419th Flight Test Squadron. They’ve determined that the B-1B can be converted to hold more ordnance than ever before — potentially making it suitable for the deployment of America’s new hypersonic weapons that are still under development.
“The purpose of the demonstration was to show that we’re still able to move the bulkhead from the forward intermediate bay to the forward location, increasing the intermediate bay capacity from 180 inches to 269 inches,” Lt. Col. Dominic Ross, chief of B-1 requirements and director of strategic plans, programs and requirements for AFGSC, said in a press release. “Additionally, we demonstrated that we can still carry weapons externally on six of the eight hard points, which increases our overall carriage capacity.”
As valuable as adding more firepower to the B-1B could be, it’s really its potential as a hypersonic missile delivery vehicle that could change its fate. Hypersonic weapons are platforms capable of maintaining speeds in excess of Mach 5. At that speed, the kinetic transfer of an impact alone is enough to destroy most targets without any need for explosive ordnance. More troubling is that existing missile defense technologies are incapable of intercepting such fast moving projectiles — making hypersonic missiles a weapon no nation can currently defend against. The United States has invested billions of dollars over the past few years into closing the gap between our own hypersonic programs and further developed programs in both Russia and China.
“It increases the magazine capacity of the B-1B. Currently we can carry 24 weapons internally, now it can be increased to potentially 40 based on what type of pylon we would create,” Lt. Col. Dominic Ross, B-1B program element monitor, said. “This gets the B-1 into the larger weapons, the 5,000 pounders. It gets it into the hypersonics game as well.”
Last year, the B-1B also carried out successful tests with Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, making it a potential platform for ship-hunting operations in places like the South China Sea, where China’s Navy would dwarf the assets America was able to deploy to the region in a period of conflict.
Despite being developed more than four decades ago, there’s a solid chance the B-1B find a new life as a high-speed platform for some of America’s most advanced weapons systems. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time America chose to rely on older airframes and newer weapons. The B-52, which represents the airborne leg of America’s nuclear triad, has been in operations since the 1950s.