B-1 bombers, B-1B, will soon have new eyes in the backs of their heads. Northrop Grumman and the USAF have signed a contract to update the aging AN/ALQ-161A defensive countermeasures system.

Objects in Mirror…

The BONE plays host to a suite of electronic countermeasures systems. When you’re flying in contested airspace with tons of high-explosives, a good rear-view mirror lets you see the tailgaters long before they’re “closer than they appear.” When those tailgaters have air-to-air missiles or their buddies on the ground have surface-to-air capabilities, it’s time to adjust the mirrors and prepare for some defensive driving.

Airmen from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, remove an engine from a B-1B Lancer at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, July 7, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Chase Sullivan)

The AN/ALQ-161A is the rear-view mirror for the B-1B Lancer. Purpose-built for the platform in the mid-’80s, the defensive suite has a 360-degree ability to identify, acquire, and jam enemy radars automatically, freeing the crew to fly and bomb. It also provides the rear-view mirror in the form of the Tail Warning function (TWF). “Twiff” is a souped-up mirror that can detect missiles coming from the rear.

A Little History

Touted as the first-ever fully-integrated electronic countermeasures, the AN/ALQ-161 was plagued with problems from the start. Developed by AIL Systems in the mid-70s, the ECM requirements were developed in response to Soviet threats known from the late 60s and early 70s, when the B-1A program was still on the table. Once President Carter ended the B-1A program in 1977, those requirements were put in stasis, to be rolled out when Reagan re-opened the new and improved B-1B program.