Icons of Aviation History: The B-1 Lancer

The B1-B Lancer nuclear bomber was perhaps the most controversial aircraft ever produced by the US, and was the subject of a Cold War political and military debate that lasted over 20 years.

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B-1B Lancer on display at the US Air Force Museum

By the early 1960’s, the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, which controlled America’s nuclear bomber force, was already looking for a replacement for its B-52 Stratofortress. Plans originally called for the B-52 to be replaced by an ultra-fast high-altitude bomber, the B-70 Valkyrie. Improvements in Soviet radar and anti-aircraft Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), however, left high-altitude planes such as the Valkyrie too vulnerable, and the B-70 was cancelled. Instead, the existing B-52s were upgraded with new avionics to improve their capabilities. At the same time, new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) replaced the long-range bomber as the US’s primary method of delivering nuclear weapons.

For a time, it was assumed that the nuclear bomber was no longer necessary, its role having been taken by the ICBM. (One of the reasons for the cancellation of the B-70 had been that manned nuclear bombers were no longer necessary.)

As the Cold War continued, however, American nuclear doctrine solidified around the concept of a “triad”: three independent nuclear weapons systems (ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range strategic bombers) would give the flexibility and survivability needed to effectively retaliate after any Soviet surprise attack.  Each element of the Triad had an advantage (and disadvantage) over the others. The ICBMs were very accurate but were increasingly vulnerable to a “first strike”. The submarine-launched missiles were hard to hit in a first strike, but were not as accurate as ICBMs. The bombers had the advantage of being recallable after being launched, but were vulnerable to air defenses. Because of this vulnerability, in the early 1970’s the Air Force again had concerns about the survivability and effectiveness of its B-52 bomber force, and again began plans to replace the Stratofortresses. The proposed new bomber was the B-1 Lancer.

The B-1 was state of the art for its time. Its three internal bomb bays could carry all of the nuclear weapons in the US arsenal to a range of 6000 miles. It had “swing-wing” variable geometry wings, which could be moved forward or backwards for different flight characteristics. Capable of going supersonic, it was faster than the B-52 and, with the swing-wings forward, could take off in a shorter distance. Unlike the earlier B-70, the new B-1 was designed to penetrate the Soviet Union at very low altitude, which would prevent radar-guided SAMs from being able to hit it, and would also prevent fighter interceptors from getting radar locks amidst the ground clutter.

But there were problems both political and military. The spiraling nuclear arms race had produced a large political group inside the US, the “nuclear freeze” movement, which was arguing for an end to the arms race, a diplomatic effort at arms-reduction talks, and an end to more and more bloated military budgets. The B-1 became a particular target of criticism. It was, critics argued, inherently an “attack” plane and would destabilize the arms race. At $150 million per plane in 1970 dollars, it was absurdly expensive. And its primary mission–delivery of nuclear weapons to the USSR–was already being replaced by smaller, cheaper, and more effective nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which could be launched from the ground, from Navy ships, or from airborne B-52s.

Unknown to the nuclear freeze movement at the time, there was also opposition to the B-1 within the military itself. Some Air Force officials once again argued that manned bombers themselves were no longer necessary, as their role was taken over by cruise missiles and by more advanced nuclear ballistic missiles. In particular, the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which could be launched from a B-52 1500 miles away from its target, made it no longer necessary to penetrate Soviet air defenses with manned aircraft in order to deliver nuclear weapons. The Soviets were also already deploying new fighter-interceptors with “look-down/shoot-down” capability, giving them the ability to pick out low-level bombers from the radar ground clutter and hit them with anti-aircraft missiles, making the low-level B-1 just as vulnerable to air defenses as the high-level bombers that it had replaced. Other military officials pointed out that the super-secret “stealth” B-2 bomber, then already approaching production, would perform the same role envisioned for the B-1, far more safely. The B-1 would in effect already be obsolete at its first takeoff, and the money being spent on the project could, they argued, be more effectively spent elsewhere.

By 1976, the B-1 had come to symbolize the entire political issue of military spending and Cold War posturing, and opinions over it broke along mostly partisan lines. The Democratic Party, which favored cuts in military spending and a diplomatic arms-control approach to the Cold War, argued that the B-1 was an unnecessary waste of money, while the Republican Party, which favored increased military spending and an aggressive approach to the Cold War, wanted to go ahead with the project. When Jimmy Carter won the election, the B-1’s fate was sealed. Within a year, the bomber was cancelled.

Four years later, the situation was reversed. In the 1980 election, military spending on the Cold War once again became a political issue, but this time the Republican Ronald Reagan, accusing the Democrats of being “weak on national defense”, won, on a political program of “getting tough with the Russians”. There followed one of the most massive increases of military spending in history (and simultaneous cuts in domestic programs), as Reagan expanded several weapons programs that had begun under Carter and added some of his own. One of these was the B-1, which, though no longer necessary as the B-2 Stealth Bomber was being secretly deployed, had become a political symbol of military power and American “will” in the Cold War. The first B-1B bomber rolled off the assembly line in September 1984. Production continued for the next four years.

In 1989, the Soviet Bloc collapsed, the Cold War came to an abrupt end, and the B-1B Lancer found itself without a mission. When the “War on Terror” broke out in 2001, the B-1, designed for delivering thermonuclear weapons against a military superpower, was dropping conventional guided bombs on tribesmen in Afghanistan who had no effective anti-aircraft capabilities.

As of 2015, there are about 60 B-1B’s still remaining on active service in the Air Force. There are plans to upgrade them, increasing their conventional bomb loads (and thereby reducing their range), and turning them into “regional” bombers.

A B1-B Lancer, produced in 1984, is on display in the Cold War Gallery at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton OH.

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