A Bomber for the Navy

This text initially featured on Over The Horizon and is republished with permission. Read it in its unique type right here.

By Will Spears and Ross Hobbs

Abstract: Somewhat than sending the B-1 Lancer into early retirement, the Division of Defense might transfer it to the Navy for obligation as a land-based ship-killer. Considering its velocity, range, payload, and adaptability to employ the new Lengthy-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), the B-1 is an ideal candidate for rebirth as a Sea Control Bomber.

For better than a decade, the United States’ protection establishment has agonized over China’s aggressive army modernization. A growing arsenal of land-based anti-ship missiles abets an more and more capable and assertive Chinese navy, threatening to quietly rework the East and South China Seas into de-facto Chinese territory if not forcefully challenged. The army points of this competitors demand a capability to struggle in the contested setting, prompting the improvement of ideas like the former Air-Sea Battle and its successor, JAM-GC, as well as a gentle drumbeat of calls from senior leaders for disruptive considering and artistic solutions.

It was on this spirit of disruptive considering that, at a CNAS-hosted panel discussion titled “A New American Way of War,” former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work casually provided up an interesting little bit of heresy:

“If the Air Force is getting rid of the B-1 bomber, I’d say ‘You are out of maritime strike.’ We’re going to give the B-1 to the Navy, we’re going to load up with 3,000 LRASMs, and we’re going to base them in Guam and all over the place, and in the first 72 hours [of a conflict] they are going to go out and hunt down and kill every ship in sight.”

Amateurs gush disruptive ideas all the time, however when an business heavyweight like Robert Work speaks out, it’s prudent to discover his opinions. Work’s conjecture was nested in a broader dialogue, beginning around the 53-minute mark, lamenting the self-imposed limitations of “jointness” in driving procurement selections. Somewhat than treating land-based strike as a proprietary mission of the Air Drive, Work suggests that the Navy revive its concept of the Patrol Bombing (VPB) Squadron, which employed land-based plane to sink enemy ships in WWII. A pressure of LRASM-equipped naval patrol bombers, Work contends, might destroy an adversary’s fleet from the air with out tangling with its anti-ship missile methods.

“In other words,” Work continued, “give the whole Chinese anti-access / area denial network no targets to shoot at.”

Secretary Work is just not the solely defense professional to suggest that the Navy get into the bomber enterprise. Analyst Robert Haddick devoted a number of pages of his influential guide Hearth on the Water to the concept. In contrast to Work, Haddick proposed that the Navy acquire its own fleet of the next-generation Lengthy Range Strike Bomber (or what has grow to be the B-21), in a joint association with the Air Pressure. To pay for it, Haddick instructed that the Navy reduce on purchases of the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, F-35C Joint Strike Fighters, and DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which he argued can be of limited usefulness in a missile-contested setting. Haddick wrote:

“With these stealthy bombers instead, the Navy would have maritime airpower that would actually be useful against China’s navy under way in the heavily defended Near Seas and against the PLA’s naval bases and ‘anti-navy’ forces—missions too dangerous for the Navy’s aircraft carriers and destroyers.”

Work and Haddick each recognized that a Navy-operated bomber runs towards modern notions of “jointness,” notions which Work characterized as a “monolithic cudgel.” They each emphasised the significance of mission effectiveness, or “what can get the job done,” over parochial service pursuits or respect for swim lanes. For Haddick, specifically, it’s all about who’s responsible to realize management of a contested sea—a perennial Navy mission. If the Navy will probably be held accountable to regulate the sea, Haddick argued, then it should have the tools necessary to do it. That, to Haddick, means bombers. He continued:

“Under the theories of Air-Sea Battle and joint operational access, it shouldn’t matter which service, or combination of services, actually does the work. But in practice, the Navy will have the most intense interest both in maritime challenges, such as land-based “anti-navy” forces, and in improvement of the capabilities and doctrine crucial to cope with such challenges. Prime-level policymakers fascinated by making sure the “anti-navy” drawback is fastened may have a robust purpose to assign the drawback—and the assets—to the Navy.”

A B-1B releases a LRASM throughout early trials of the AGM-158C anti-ship missile. The B-1 is the first aircraft to grow to be operational with the weapon. (Lockheed Martin)

Hearth on the Water was revealed in 2014, and while it has turn out to be required studying in struggle schools for its depiction of China’s army enlargement, Haddick’s name for a naval variant of the Long-Range Strike Bomber by no means garnered a lot attention. Concern over the high-end battle has solely grown, although, and Work’s current conjecture is a working example which reframes Haddick’s argument. A rigorous testing program has determined the B-1 might fly via 2040 with no major life extension, but the Air Drive has determined to retire it early to make room for the B-21 Raider. What if, as an alternative of going to the boneyard, the B-1 have been reassigned to the Navy?

The B-1 as a Sea Control Bomber

The Rockwell B-1 has had an fascinating experience as a program of report. Designed to exchange the 1960s-era B-52 as the Air Pressure’s main nuclear bomber, the first B-1A flew in 1974. It was canceled by the Carter administration earlier than getting into production but then revived as the B-1B Lancer beneath Reagan. The B-1B featured improved avionics and larger payload than its predecessor, as well as an 85 % reduction in radar cross-section at a slight penalty to hurry. 100 have been constructed; 63 remain in service at this time. It was divested of the nuclear mission in 1994, its monumental bomb bays repurposed to quite a lot of typical attack munitions.

A basic instance of Chilly Warfare-era design for lethality, the B-1 provides a mixture of velocity, flexibility, payload, and range that is still unmatched in its class. Able to touring for hours at close to supersonic speeds, it may possibly surge across vast oceans quicker and with much less refueling help than any current US or allied nation plane. Additionally it is more maneuverable than different bombers and much more versatile. B-1 crews practice at each high and low altitudes to carry out quite a lot of mission units, including large-scale standoff weapon assaults, large-scale Joint Direct Assault Munition (JDAM) assaults, Close Air Help (CAS), Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance (SCAR), Non-traditional Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (NTISR), and Air Operations in Maritime Floor Warfare (AOMSW) which incorporates Counter Quick Attack Craft (FAC)/Fast Inshore Assault Craft (FIAC), Aerial Mine Laying, and Conflict at Sea towards floor vessels.

The Navy’s main use for the B-1 can be for the supply of standoff weapons like LRASM or the Joint Air-to-Floor Standoff Missile (JASSM) towards peer adversaries. These might destroy high-end warships and coastal cruise missile methods on brief notice and from a cushty distance, creating multiple avenues of strategy for distributed naval forces. In situations in need of conflict, they supply a strong deterrent to maritime aggression, demonstrating each the functionality and the resolve to undertaking power right into a contested surroundings. In uneven or low-intensity conflicts the B-1 would continue to ship the similar versatile fight power that it has for many years, solely it might be administered by the Navy as an alternative of the Air Drive.

This versatility is probably the B-1’s most compelling function. Of all bombers in service, the B-1 doesn’t just carry the largest payload (75,000 pounds; the B-52 and B-2 carry 70,000 and 40,000 kilos respectively), but its repertoire of supported weapons and fight methods is among the most elaborate fielded by any plane as we speak. Included are the aforementioned long-range standoff weapons (LRASM and JASSM), as well as GPS- and laser-guided JDAMs (GBU-31, 38, 54), unguided bombs and sea mines (Mk-82, 84, 62, 65), and a mess of sensors including the Sniper concentrating on pod and a Synthetic Aperture Radar. It additionally encompasses a highly effective defensive avionics suite, able to providing digital countermeasures towards advanced menace methods.

Some examples of potential Navy fight loadouts and mission sets are under. B-1 squadrons normally practice to a minimal of two plane for a given mission, so the ordnance delivered to bear would in all probability mirror some a number of of the following:

  • Sea Denial: 24 LRASM
  • A2/AD Rollback: Eight LRASM & 16 JASSM
  • Strategic Attack: 24 JASSM
  • Aerial Mine Laying: 84 Mk-62 or 12 Mk-65
  • Counter FAC/FIAC: 10 CBU-105D/B and 6 GBU-54
  • CAS for SOF/USMC: 8x GBU-31, 6x GBU-38, 6x GBU-54

3Two U.S. Air Drive B-1B Lancer bombers fly from Andersen Air Pressure Base, Guam, for a mission, with an escort of a pair of Japan Self-Protection Forces F-15 fighter jets and U.S. Marines’ F-35B fighter jets in the vicinity of Kyushu, Japan, in this photograph released by Air Employees Workplace of the Protection Ministry of Japan August 31, 2017. (Air Employees Workplace of the Protection Ministry of Japan/HANDOUT by way of REUTERS)

In addition to firepower, versatility can also be a perform of range. With out aerial refueling, the B-1 can fly for over 8 hours, or approximately 3,500 nautical miles. To place this in perspective, it may possibly fly from Hawaii to Guam without refueling, or perhaps more pertinently, from Guam to the Taiwan Strait and again. With refueling, B-1 missions have exceeded 24 hours. A notional Concept of Operations might distribute the B-1 fleet between CONUS naval air stations and established overseas airbases like Andersen (Guam), Hickam (Hawaii) and Al Udeid (Qatar). Like they are as we speak, these would stay on-call 24/7 for quick response to emergent tasking with or without aerial refueling. Deployed in live performance with missile-bearing attack submarines, and empowered by versatile refueling choices like carrier-based unmanned tankers, a distributed pressure of Sea Management Bombers would current a posh and risk-prohibitive planning dilemma to any would-be maritime aggressor.

Many critics would argue that any new aircraft acquisitions ought to be unmanned. That could be true, offered that we ignore the unresolved points with autonomous concentrating on in a communications-denied surroundings. At any price, the B-1 just isn’t a brand new acquisition; it’s a completely established system. On this sense it may well serve as a proof-of-concept, buying time for an autonomous alternative to realize Preliminary Operational Functionality (IOC).


For navalists intrigued by the B-1’s superlative capabilities, excitement ought to be tempered with respect for its costs. Unsurprisingly, the B-1 is a labor-intensive beast, demanding 74 maintenance man-hours per flying hour (MMH/FH) with an estimated value per flying hour of $70Okay (to be truthful, the B-52 also prices about $70Okay per flying hour, whereas the B-2 prices between $110Okay and $150Okay). These are Air Pressure estimates and will not be completely fungible with the Navy’s models for aircraft possession prices, but their implications are clear. Even if the B-1 fleet have been reassigned to the Navy “free of charge,” there’s little doubt that manning and maintaining it might be costly.


Then there’s the matter of age. As a result of elements like fatigue and diminishing manufacturing sources, aircraft are likely to develop into costlier to maintain airworthy as they become old. Whereas numerous modernization efforts have prevented the B-1 from falling into obsolescence, the airframe is clearly in the “aging” part of its life cycle, as Congressional Finances Office analysts found that the B-1’s value per flying hour grew by an actual fee (i.e., unbiased of inflation) of two.9% between 1999 and 2016.


Some of the B-1’s possession prices will probably be lowered by way of modernizations as shifting elements are eradicated and high-failure electronics are replaced with solid-state circuitry. A few of these modernization efforts are in progress as we speak; others have been shelved with the determination to retire the B-1 however could possibly be revived. Further savings might be gleaned by accepting sacrifices in efficiency, as may be prudent upon reassignment of the B-1 to a special mission. For example, if the Sea Control mission set doesn’t require supersonic speeds, the B-1 could possibly be outfitted with engines which might be much less powerful but more dependable and fuel-efficient. Any such modifications would demand an preliminary injection of funding, although, as would the essential modernizations to keep the airframe flying via 2040 or beyond.


When viewing B-1’s costs towards the anticipated worth of the B-21 Raider program, it’s little surprise that the Air Pressure is ready to retire it. It’s hardly environment friendly to help four totally different courses of bomber concurrently. Their determination raises the query, though: If the B-1 is just too expensive for the Air Pressure, whose main mission is long-range strike, then how might it’s reasonably priced to the Navy, whose main mission just isn’t long-range strike? If the B-1 have been reassigned to the Navy without further funding to man and keep it, then it might simply flip into a monetary albatross, diverting assets from core Navy priorities (e.g., warships) to primarily duplicate the capabilities of a sister service.

The heresy of a Navy-operated, land-based long-range bomber crosses service strains. For the Air Pressure, it will characterize an intrusion upon what has lengthy been its operational territory in addition to the unique rationale for its existence as an unbiased armed service. From a extra sensible standpoint, fairly than turn over a totally furnished weapons system to another service, Air Pressure management would virtually definitely choose to gut the B-1 and its associated logistics tail, protecting the useful elements inside the Air Pressure.

For the Navy, practical considerations might be troublesome to differentiate from emotional resistance, because taking over the B-1 would in all probability demand sacrifices in some packages extra historically recognizable as “Navy.” In principle, being land-based should not have any bearing on the B-1’s legitimacy as a naval instrument, because the Navy has lengthy relied upon land-based aircraft. Platforms like the P-Eight Poseidon and the MQ-4C Triton are crucial parts of immediately’s balanced fleet. In reality, though, a heavy bomber like the B-1 would upset the stability, immediately turning into certainly one of the Navy’s most exquisite and potent offensive weapons. It might give credence to the charge, which the Navy denies rigorously, that main surface combatants and plane carriers are too weak to struggle underneath menace of weapons like the DF-21D.

At problem is the Navy’s sense of id, and whether or not it’s derived from what a navy is (ships and plane… but principally ships) or what a navy does (control the maritime area). Indeed, lots of the Navy’s conventional missions would receive no worth from the B-1. It can’t pull into a brand new ally’s port for a courtesy visit, nor can it board and search a vessel suspected of trafficking weapons. It can’t destroy a midcourse ballistic missile, nor can it hunt and kill enemy submarines. What the B-1 can do is sink ships, a variety of them, and shortly. It might do this on brief notice throughout vast distances, and it may possibly do it with out partaking “A2/AD” missile techniques. That the Navy might use a weapon like that is beyond dispute; whether it should, is determined by what the Navy would surrender and the relative significance of the Sea Management mission. It’s worthy of study.

Finally, it will not be about what both service needs, however what Congress needs. The B-1 fleet is a serious investment of nationwide treasure, and Congress might determine that it ought to be stored airworthy via the entirety of its service life as a matter of excellent stewardship. Some representatives, ostensibly involved about peer adversaries and a relative decline in US army energy, might choose to maintain the B-1 flying in no matter capability could possibly be justified. Beneath this state of affairs, it will definitely be easier and cheaper to keep it beneath the Air Pressure, until Congress was persuaded that the Navy would make better use of it.

6B-1B Lancer flying over the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Air Pressure Photograph/Employees Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Closing Thoughts

The B-21 is predicted to succeed in IOC in the mid- to late- 2020s, with the phase-out of B-1 beginning in 2030. Air Pressure International Strike Command has already begun to shift focus away from the B-1, having announced intentions to increase the B-52 by means of 2050. As soon as the B-21 starts flying, help for B-1 will virtually definitely stop. Considering these timelines, if B-1 have been to be reassigned to the Navy, the preferrred time for transition can be someday between 2028 and 2030.

The B-21, just like the B-2 in its design idea and stealth features, shouldn’t be able to changing the B-1’s velocity, flexibility, or payload. The early retirement of the B-1 will symbolize a decline in versatile US hanging energy throughout all Unified Combatant Commands at a time when it’s wanted most. Concepts for protecting that energy at the ready, nevertheless unorthodox, ought to be explored completely. This article’s function has not been to advocate for the B-1’s reassignment to the Navy, however to advocate for its consideration by a 3rd get together unbiased of service biases. Without thorough and professional analysis, there are too many variables at play to touch upon whether or not this idea can be good or dangerous for the Navy, the Air Pressure, or the nation. This much is for certain although: The B-1’s continued service can be dangerous for the PLA Navy.

LCDR Will Spears is a US Navy submariner and a scholar in the Multi-Area Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Command and Employees School. He has served aboard a number of attack submarines in the Western Pacific space of duty.

Maj Ross “RAW” Hobbs is a B-1 Weapons Officer Instructor Pilot and a scholar in the Multi-Area Operational Strategist focus at Air Command and Employees School.  He has over 2,000 hours of flying in the B-1 and other platforms with multiple deployments, together with the Western Pacific area of duty.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily mirror the official policy or place of the Department of the Navy, the Division of the Air Drive or any organization of the US authorities.

Featured Picture: A U.S. Air Pressure B-1 Lancer Bomber flies by the plane service USS NIMITZ (CVN 68). Nimitz is deployed to the Persian Gulf in help of Operation Southern Watch, 12/25/1997 (PH2 Christopher G. Ware)