Boeing raised eyebrows last year when it filed patents on the tech it would require to turn America’s only supersonic heavy payload bomber, the B-1B Lancer, into the world’s fastest gunship. While that pitch may not have been a home run with the Department of Defense, it does appear the legendary Lancer may have more life left in it than previous Air Force statements may have indicated.
Slated to be replaced alongside the B-2 Spirit by the forthcoming B-21 Raider, the Lancer’s service lifespan was thought to be nearing a close. However, with billions recently allocated for upgrades and the new addition of long-range anti-ship missiles to its arsenal, the B-1B may play an important role in a conflict with China, were one ever to break out.
The B-1B Lancer, known affectionately in aviation circles as “the Bone,” is a supersonic-capable bomber with a massive payload capacity of 125,000 pounds. Its four powerful engines (producing nearly 31,000 pounds of thrust each) and variable-sweep wing design allow the massive bomber to fly in a decidedly fighter jet-like fashion. With the inclusion of Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM), the Bone could become America’s most formidable warship hunter.
“It provides combatant commanders out there across the world with a very key anti-ship capability in what we call the counter-sea mission,” 28th Bomb Wing commander Col. John Edwards told the local press after the first successful LRASM test aboard a B-1B Lancer. “So it’s designed specifically to go against ships and it increases the B-1’s lethality and the range at which we can employ this.”
China’s military has undergone a massive reorganization and modernization effort in recent years, boasting more active duty troops than any nation on Earth. China is also amassing a sizeable navy complete with modern vessels like their Type 052D destroyers that are rumored to be a pound-for-pound match with America’s Arleigh Burke-class of vessels. For all its size and new tech, however, China’s People’s Liberation Army remains hampered by decades worth of stagnation, a lack of operational experience, and the vast disparities between its highest- and lowest-tech endeavors.
If America and China were to enter into a conflict, it’s unlikely that the U.S. would try to wage war with China’s nearly 2.2 million active duty service members on Chinese soil. Instead, America would focus on strangling China’s economy with blockades while using air and missile strikes to bombard the nation.
But for that strategy to work, America would have to contend not only with China’s quickly growing and increasingly modern navy, but also China’s Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia. All told, these three organizations represent a total naval strength of more than 650 sizable vessels, not counting smaller attack boats. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, boasts around 270 total vessels, and could not possibly hope to devote all of those ships to a single conflict in the Pacific without risking the stability of large swaths of the globe.
That means American ships fighting in the Pacific would quickly find themselves hopelessly outnumbered, though that isn’t to say American tech wouldn’t offer a number of its own advantages, but the sheer volume of ships to contend with would pose a significant challenge. As stealth platforms like the B-21 Raider and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (likely launched from amphibious assault ships that don’t present as large a target) attempted to eliminate China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles along the coastline, it could be the B-1B Lancer flying long-range sorties from allied airstrips in the region hunting down and destroying Chinese vessels using its LRASMs.
A fleet of ship-hunting Bones equipped with Lockheed Martin’s ship-hunting missiles could offer the U.S. Navy some much-needed assistance in dealing with the vast numbers of Chinese military and paramilitary vessels, which would be an integral part of the long-term strategy to eliminate anti-ship missile platforms and punch a hole through Chinese naval defenses deep enough to put American aircraft carriers within striking distance of Chinese shores.
While the B-1B may be slated for retirement on paper, the Air Force’s plan to invest billions into the aircraft in the coming years, along with its unique skill set as a long-range ship hunter, could grant the Bone a new life above the 21st century battlefield. The only real question is…will we ever have to use it?