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North America, Western Europe and Oceania , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

U.S. Air Force’s Elite B-1B Heavy Bomber Sees 33 Years in Service - Can the Lancer Make 44 and What Could its Future Hold?

July 10th - 2018

Having entered service with the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command in early July 1985, the B-1B Lancer would come to be America’s most capable heavy bomber for decades and in 2018 saw 33 years in active service. Of the 100 aircraft produced, 60 remain in active service and have been deployed across the world from Guam to the Middle East as a warning to America’s potential adversaries. While the bombers were designed as a replacement for the pre Vietnam War era B-52 Stratofortress, and a less costly alternative to the B-1A high altitude bomber which was terminated under the Carter administration in favour of an upgraded B-52, the aircraft have remained highly useful long after the Cold War ended. With the subsonic B-52 fast ageing and unsuitable for a number of missions, and the B-2 Spirit not only lacking standoff capabilities but also suffering numerous very serious performance issues and plagued by extreme maintain requirements, the B-1B has long been relied on as America’s foremost and most versatile bomber.

Despite its importance, the B-1B is highly likely to be retired in the next decade due to the imminent arrival of the B-21 next generation stealth bomber - a platform which will combine the stealth of the B-2 with the applicability, low maintenance and standoff capabilities of the B-1B. The new bomber is set to replace both the Spirit and the Lancer in active service, and serve alongside the B-52 - a platform which continues to be heavily upgraded and remains highly lethal at standoff ranges. While the B-1B is a considerably more capable bomber than the Stratofortress, the older platform’s reliability, versatility, low maintenance needs and nuclear capabilities make them a preferable choice. Whether the B-1B will be retired entirely, or whether it will instead see its airframe modified for some other role, remains to be seen. With the airframes amounting to billions of dollars value, proposals have been made to modify the Lancers into heavily armed support gunships for the U.S. Army deploying anti personnel weapons. Another option would be to convert the Lancers into dedicated ship hunters, much as China’s PLA Navy has done with several of its H-6 airframes, which would provide the U.S. with a considerable asset against hostile surface fleets in the increasingly contested Pacific theatre. The fate of the B-1B remains to be seen, but the aircraft is unlikely to see its 44th anniversary serving as a bomber unless unforeseen circumstances, such as an immediate need for more bombers, should lead the Air Force to alter its judgement. The Lancer could otherwise see continued service into the 21st century in a different role, likely under a new name as well, where its airframe would be put to use fulfilling the military’s other needs.

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