Bombers Away? The B-1 Could Be Near Its Demise

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Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon / U.S. Air Force

A B-1B Lancer flies a combat patrol over Afghanistan

Nixon launched it, Carter killed it and Reagan resurrected it. In its infancy, the Air Force's B-1 bomber was a quick and dirty military metaphor — Republicans wanted to buy weapons to defend the nation from the Soviet Union, and Democrats didn't. Now it could become a different kind of symbol: the Air Force is thinking of retiring its total 66-plane B-1 fleet to hit budget targets set by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Top Air Force officials met behind closed doors late last week to determine if permanently grounding the B-1 fleet makes sense.

No decision has yet been announced, and there's always a chance the service is bluffing. After all, news of the B-1 early retirement first cropped up in a blog maintained by Air Force magazine, an independent publication whose interests still tend to be pretty much in sync with those of the Air Force itself.

But the fact that the topic is even up for discussion is significant for three reasons. First of all, the idea that the B-1's future is in doubt highlights just how tight Air Force leaders believe military budgets are going to get. "The gusher [of post 9/11 defense spending] has been turned off," Gates warned last month, "and will stay off for a good period of time." Secondly, the Air Force seems to be trying to take the initiative in resetting budget priorities, instead of having them imposed from above by Gates or the White House. Finally, the notion that the B-1's fate is in play suggests just how quickly air warfare is changing.

The history of the B-1 Lancer (pilots prefer to call it the "Bone," supposedly stemming from a long-ago typo that left the hyphen out of "B-One") since it went operational in 1986 captures air warfare in a nutshell. It was designed for nuclear war with the Soviet Union, but that mission evaporated with the Cold War's end. Even though the Pentagon still maintains its so-called "nuclear triad" capable of delivering nuclear warheads via submarines, land-based missiles and bombers, the B-1 fleet no longer has that mission (the stealth bomber, now known as the B-2 — whose secret development convinced Carter to kill the B-1 — and lumbering B-52s are assigned that role.)

So, by default, the B-1 became a conventional bomber, capable of carrying more weapons — up to 24 tons of bombs — than anything else the Pentagon flies. But despite what airpower advocates maintain, the era of Dresden-like bombing is over. The current restrictions on bombing in Afghanistan — where ever smaller and more precisely guided bombs are delivered in ones and twos instead of dozens — show how bombing campaigns have evolved since precision-guided munitions first went mainstream in the Gulf War nearly 20 years ago. And unmanned drones are now capable of dropping bombs without jeopardizing pilots' lives.

Even if the Air Force decides to retire the fleet, Congress gets the last word. Lawmakers count on the planes to generate jobs back home. "Eliminating or reducing the B-1 fleet would be a terrible mistake and one that I would oppose, especially while America is engaged in two wars and faces numerous threats around the globe," said Senator John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, whose state's Ellsworth Air Force Base is one of two B-1 bases in the nation.

What's always tough about the possible demise of a weapons system is how its hometown backers tend to be oblivious to the plotting and scheming about its future happening back in the capital. B-1 boosters note that current plans call for the plane to continue flying for another 30 years. A B-1 just appeared at a Berlin air show, and began flight tests of a new targeting system earlier this month in California. "The future of the B-1 is bright and it is going to get brighter," Colonel Charles Sherwin, who helps keep the bomber flying, said earlier this month from a B-1 depot at Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base. A colleague, Rick Cantwell, agreed. "The B-1 is here to stay," he said. "It's not going anywhere anytime soon, as far as retirement." If only it were up to him.