Plane of the Week #24: Rockwell B-1 Lancer

This week’s plane of the week is the Rockwell B-1 Lancer bomber.


First off, last week I promised a North American bomber and I am delivering a Rockwell bomber. Why? North American merged with Rockwell Standard in 1967 following the Apollo 1 fire that North American was blamed for. The company became Rockwell International in 1973 and changed the name of its aircraft division to North American Aircraft Operations. The first succesful contracts for the B-1 were awarded to Rockwell International in 1983 and North American was sold to Boeing at the end of the 1980s, along with the B-1. What was left of Rockwell split in 2001 into Rockwell Collins and Rockwell Automations. So the B-1 was known for a time as the Rockwell B-1 and later as the Boeing B-1, but during its time at Rockwell, it was really being built by North American, as that was Rockwell’s only aircraft department. When NA was sold to Boeing, however, it stopped building aircraft of its own, as Boeing was an aircraft company already.

B-1 with a Dodge Grand Caravan for scale.

The Rockwell  B-1 Lancer is a four-engine supersonic variable-sweep wing, jet-powered heavy strategic bomber used by the United States Air Force. It was first envisioned in the 1960s as a supersonic bomber with Mach 2 speed, and sufficient range and payload to replace the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and have similar capabilities to the XB-70. It was developed into the B-1B, primarily a low-level penetrator with long range and Mach 1.25 speed capability at high altitude. Nicknamed “The Bone,” the B-1B Lancer is a long-range, multi-mission conventional bomber, which has served the United States Air Force since 1985. Originally designed for nuclear capabilities, the B-1 switched to an exclusively conventional combat role in the mid 1990’s. In 1999, during Operation Allied Force, six B-1s flew 2 percent of the strike missions, yet dropped 20 percent of the ordnance. The B-1 has been nearly continuously deployed in combat operations over Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.


Development was delayed multiple times over its history due to changes in the perceived need for manned bombers. The initial B-1A version was developed in the early 1970s, but its production was canceled, and only four prototypes were built. This was one of the main points of Jimmy Carter’s campaign, saying “The B-1 bomber is an example of a proposed system which should not be funded and would be wasteful of taxpayers’ dollars.” That sounds suspiciously similar to what they’re saying about the F-35. They thought we didn’t need the B-1, and look where it is now.


The need for a new platform once again surfaced in the early 1980s, and the aircraft resurfaced as the B-1B version with the focus on low-level penetration bombing. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan campaigned heavily on the platform that Carter was weak on defense, citing the cancellation of the B-1 program as an example, a theme he continued using into the 1980s. During this time Carter’s defense secretary, Harold Brown, announced the stealth bomber project, apparently implying that this was the reason for the B-1 cancellation. Production went ahead as the B version would be operational before the “Advanced Technology Bomber” (which became the B-2 Spirit), during a period when the B-52 would be increasingly vulnerable. The B-1B entered service in 1986 with the USAF Strategic Air Command as a nuclear bomber.


After a long and involved history, the B-1 finally became one of the world’s best bombers. It’s not even finished yet. In February 2014, work began on a multi-year upgrade of 62 (out of the 90 remaining) B-1Bs, scheduled to be completed by 2019. The vertical situation display upgrade will replace existing flight instruments with multifunction color displays, a second display will aid threat evasion and targeting, and act as a back-up display. Additional memory capacity is to be installed for the diagnostics database. Procurement and installation of the IBS upgrades is expected to cost $918 million, research and engineering costs are estimated at $391 million. Other additions are to replace the two spinning mass gyroscopic inertial navigation system with ring laser gyroscopic systems and a GPS antenna, replacement of the APQ-164 radar with the Scalable Agile Beam Radar – Global Strike active electronically scanned array, and a new attitude indicator. Fancy.


Bad to the Bone, as they say.

Awaiting takeoff
A 28th Bomb Wing B-1B Lancer sits on the ramp in the early morning at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Aug. 30, waiting to taxi. The aircraft was taking off to conduct the first test launch of a joint air-to-surface standoff missile. Ellsworth AFB is one of the biggest B-1 bases in America. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Angela Ruiz)


Next week: You’ll never guess what aircraft company I’m going to write about.



Plane of the Week #24: Rockwell B-1 Lancer

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