Long-range strategic bomber built by Rockwell International. The sleek, swing-wing, quad-engine aircraft was originally designed as a high speed, high altitude replacement for the B-52 for long-range nuclear attack missions. Shelved by President Carter, it was resurrected by Reagan and re-spun to be a lighter weight, stealthier, lower-altitude, subsonic conventional bomb and cruise missile platform. Officially called the Lancer, but affectionately known as the Bone (B-One.)

General Characteristics

Primary Function: Long-range, multi-role, heavy bomber
Builder: Rockwell International, North American Aircraft
Operations Air Frame and Integration: Offensive avionics, Boeing Military Airplane; defensive avionics, AIL Division
Power plant: Four General Electric F-101-GE-102 turbofan engine with afterburner
Thrust: 30,000-plus pounds with afterburner, per engine
Length: 146 feet (44.5 meters)
Wingspan: 137 feet (41.8 meters) extended forward, 79 feet (24.1 meters) swept aft
Height: 34 feet (10.4 meters)
Weight: Empty, approximately 190,000 pounds (86,183 kilograms)
Maximum Takeoff Weight: 477,000 pounds ((216,634 kilograms)
Speed: 900-plus mph (Mach 1.2 at sea level)
Range: Intercontinental, unrefueled
Ceiling: More than 30,000 feet (9,144 meters)
Crew: Four (aircraft commander, pilot, offensive systems officer and defensive systems officer)
Armament: Up to 84 Mark 82 conventional 500-pound bombs and 30 CBU-87/89/97. Also can be reconfigured to carry a wide range of nuclear weapons
Date Deployed: June 1985
Unit Cost: $200-plus million per aircraft
Inventory: Active force, 51 primary mission aircraft inventory (PMAI), 72 (actual), 2 (test); ANG, 18 PAA (20 actual); Reserve , 0
Although it was introduced in 1985, the B-1 didn't drop bombs in anger until 1998, when it was used to attack Iraqi SAM sites. This was something of a let-down for a bomber which was originally designed during the cold war to strike fear into the hearts of suburban Muscovites, and to assault Russian ICBM silos with atomic bombs.

The B-1 was designed in the 1970s as a long-range nuclear strike bomber - rather like Britain's Vulcan, or the Russian Backfire. The B-1 was to be faster and more capacious than either of the aforementioned, and the B-52, an aircraft which was, at that time, expected to serve only until the 1980s. The B-1 was also intended to overlap with the F-111 as a vehicle for dropping tactical nuclear weapons on Soviet tank formations.

However, even whilst it was on the drawing-board, the concept of a long-range nuclear bomber seemed badly dated. ICBMs had been dominating nuclear thinking since the 1960s. Furthermore, although stealth was not yet fully declassified, it was understood at the time that a new generation of radar-invisible aircraft were waiting in the wings to make the B1 obsolete (the troubles faced by the hugely expensive B-2 Spirit are for another writeup). Despite objections from Rockwell and the USAF the project was tabled by President Carter in 1977. Sensing a vote-winner in Georgia, the state in which it was to be manufactured, and seeking to alarm the USSR with a constant stream of new weapons, President Reagan resurrected it in the early 1980s.

Since then, it has hung around the USAF inventory like a dotty uncle, unable to find a unique role in the modern world. Its original mission gone, it was by the 1980s modified to launch cruise missiles, a technology which unfortunately did not require a supersonic long-range bomber. The B-52 was similarly reconfigured as a cruise missile platform, and the B-1 seemed to offer no advantage over this or ship-launched cruise missiles. Through the 1990s the aircraft has been reconfigured to drop conventional explosives, but at great cost. Due to the upgrade programme, it did not see service in Desert Storm.

Whilst its military career has spluttered and stalled, the aircraft itself is very attractive. The arrangement of the engines resembles that of Concorde, whilst the sleek lines - an early use of stealth technology - are in marked contrast to the brutal bulbosity of the B-52. Although the force has been reduced in recent years there are nonetheless no plans to discontinue the B-1; the B-2 is much too expensive to use in actual combat, whilst there are only so many B-52s to go around.

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