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On Friday, strikes by U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers demolished 85 aimpoints at four Iran proxy militia target areas in Syria and three in Iraq. And they did it launching from Texas.
The White House has promised a multi-layered campaign against the militias backed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. So far, President Biden and his team are relying on airpower to contain and punish Iran’s proxies.
But let me assure you, Friday’s strikes were just a taste of what the B-1s can unleash.
A U.S. Air Force B-1B Bomber from Dyess Air Force Base flies over the 134th Rose Parade on Jan. 2, 2023, in Pasadena, California. (Jerod Harris/Getty Images)
For the B-1 crews who flew Friday, those regions of Syria and Iraq are like their backyard. B-1s have flown combat missions for Central Command for years, pounding fixed targets, eliminating chemical weapons sites, and flying over friendly ground forces for hours, targeting ISIS insurgents one precision bomb at a time.
The B-1s have the biggest payload of any American bomber. Heck, each B-1 can carry 42,000 pounds of precision, individually-targetable munitions. That means IRGC safe houses and weapons routes in Syria and Iraq can be turned into a moonscape. Think about that, Esmail Ghani.
The sleek and supersonic B-1 bomber was famously canceled by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. President Ronald Reagan brought it back in 1981, and built 100 B-1 bombers in California.
Per the 1982 rock lyrics of George Thorogood and the Destroyers, this airplane is bad, b-b-b-bad to the bone. Literally. The B-1B bomber is officially named the Lancer, but it is affectionately known as the B-ONE or "Bone."
Hands down, it’s the sleekest bomber ever built. It’s not a stealth design like the B-2 Spirit or the new B-21 Raider, but the B-1 simply screams speed. Four General Electric F101 dual-rotor, afterburning turbofan engines push the B-1 to a top speed of Mach 1.2, or about 900 miles per hour.
Cool fact: the B-1’s variable-sweep wings move while in flight. The wings are forward at an angle of 15 degrees from the fuselage for take-off and landing. Sweep the wings back to an angle of 67 degrees, and the lifting efficiency allows the B-1 to go faster than the speed of sound at low or high altitudes.
Back in the Cold War, the B-1 was designed to penetrate Soviet Russian airspace at extreme low levels, hugging the terrain to mask their target approach in wartime. Crews trained for the missions at night, in weather, in the mountains. Going nine miles a minute at 400 feet or less, "there’s a lot of blur when you look out the side window," a former B-1 pilot, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Miller, told me.
Today B-1s fly at higher altitudes for combat so they can deploy sophisticated precision weapons. And they fly really long missions. Like from Texas to Syria and back.
The B-1 mission from Texas was all part of the combat routine. Still, it’s no fun sitting on an ejection seat for 30 hours. Having four B-1 crew members – two pilots, and two combat systems officers who work magic with electronic warfare – helps with managing fatigue.
"Power naps, pay attention to nutrition, and don’t over-caffeinate. You can do 24-20 hours and still feel pretty good," Miller said.
Personally, I can’t imagine a globe-spanning combat mission with limited coffee, but there is room to stretch out between the front and rear cockpit areas. The coziest position for naps in the B-1? On top the foam and vinyl engine inlet covers always carried aboard on long missions. And yes, there is a camp toilet in the B-1.
To my mind, last Friday’s B-1 strikes were a pointed reminder that America can begin a sustained air campaign at any time.
Move B-1s to bases in theater and they strike Iranian ships at sea, blow up air defense systems or other sensitive sites from long ranges with weapons like the Joint Air to Surface Missile (JASSM) and the Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW.) And, most of all, keep the pressure on insurgent and militia terrorists from Syria to the Houthis in Yemen.
The B-1s have done it before. In August 2014, a B-1 was taking off from Qatar for a mission over Afghanistan when the crew was re-tasked to support Iraqi troops at risk of being overrun as Islamic State forces came within 30 miles of Baghdad.
B-1s started flying 10-hour missions over the battle area, launching precision weapons one-by-one at ISIS insurgents and pounding fixed sites.
Early in 2015, B-1s broke the siege of Kobani, a town on the Syria-Turkey border, by dropping over 1,700 weapons in a few weeks of close air support for Kurdish troops. That battle stopped the advance of the so-called ISIS caliphate.
U.S. and coalition aircraft went on to drop over 114,000 bombs from 2014 to 2018 alone.
Struggles with spare parts and costs have pared the B-1 fleet down to a precious 45 aircraft. But there’s a reason the Air Force retired 17 B-1s to keep the others flying: China. Out in the Pacific, the supersonic speeds of the B-1 could play a big role.
Right now, the Air Force is testing a new external wing pylon developed by Boeing that could enable the B-1 to carry big, hypersonic missiles on its wings. The B-1 has already tried out the GBU-72 Advanced 5K penetrator and other precision munitions on the pylon. All very useful if China gets aggressive.
Yep, that B-1 is bad to the bone. Not the plane Iran or China wants to mess with.
Rebecca Grant is President of IRIS Independent Research and a Visiting Fellow of the Lexington Institute.