The United States Air Force’s only supersonic bomber, the B-1B Lancer, is set to be retired from service by the mid 2030s and be replaced by the more capable next generation B-21. The Air Force currently fields three bomber classes, the pre Vietnam War era B-52, the B-1 which dates back to 1986 and the stealthy B-2 Spirit which entered service in the late 1990s. Of these, only the B-52 is set to remain in service alongside the B-21 - and despite its age its reliability and low maintenance are highly prized by the Air Force, meaning it could well see 100 years in service. The military may well be glad to be rid of the B-2 Spirit, a troublesome design which has proven extremely delicate, vulnerable to rain and weather and requiring well over a month’s maintenance for each sortie - not to mention its vulnerability in combat due to its low speed and durability and lack of defensive armaments. The B-1B however has proven a far more reliable and combat capable platform, and the Air Force may well see continued use for its treasured airframe following its retirement from service as a bomber.
On May 8th 2018 U.S. Patent 9,963,231 B2 was awarded to Boeing to develop a heavy gunship based on the B-1B Lancer, a platform set to deploy cannons and extensive air to ground weapons systems in place of its bomb bays. Designs show cannons deployed in various configurations from inside the aircraft, and can neatly tuck inside the gunship to maintain its aerodynamic profile for supersonic flight. A variety of autocannons appear to have sizes from 25mm to 40mm, and these guns are set to be used for both close air support and ground attack. Using compact mechanised space saving designs, a massive amount of firepower can be packed into the aircraft, while the B-1B’s speed would allow for a rapid response time.
The Boeing patent states regarding the potential for a bomber to be converted into a gunship: “a bomber may be able to provide close air support or better support ground troops. Accordingly, a single aircraft ma be able to cover a larger area and perform multi function/ mission capabilities… Further, by using compound movements (e.g. movement in multiple directions) the weapons system may be configured to deploy a weapon that is larger Thant he dimension of an opening through which the weapon and the gun mount are deployed.” It continues: “Additionally, by using transfers mounted weapons or rotatable gun mounts, the aircraft may provide ground support more safely and for a longer period of time as opposed to aircraft that fire a longitudinally mounted projectile weapons through a fixed cowling. For example, the aircraft may fly at a bank angle in a loop surrounding a particularly area as opposed to an aircraft having longitudinal mounted guns that performs multiple high pitch angle strafing runs directly over the target (such as the A-10 Warthog).”
The firepower that a gunship based on the B-1B equipped with cannons, miniguns or even grenade launchers, likely a combination of these, would be truly formidable, and would do much to mitigate the current difficulties facing the U.S. military regarding its lack of close air support capabilities as it fails to find an adequate replacement for the ageing A-10 Warthog. While the F-35 light stealth fighter was originally pitched as a close air support platform alongside its strike roles, its extreme delicacy and other shortcomings make it highly unsuitable for such a role. With over 62 Lancers currently in service, their repurposing would avoid a massive waste of tens of billions of dollars worth of tried and tested airframes. The B-1B’s high maintenance and relatively limited ability to loiter relative to other gunships remain the design’s only obvious shortcomings, but these could well be compensated for by the low cost, speed and sheer firepower these platforms can deploy.