1/24/2007 - ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. (AFNEWS) -- The 28th Bomb Wing received its first B-1B Lancer on Jan. 21, 1987. Over the course of its 20 years of service with the wing, the aircraft and its mission have changed significantly.
The B-1B has roots in the 1970s, when it became obvious that winning the Cold War required stepping up technology. Originally, Rockwell International won the bid to build four prototype aircraft. The Air Force wanted a fast jet that could cruise efficiently at subsonic speeds and at speeds as high as Mach 2.2, with the additional capability of low-altitude, near sonic capability. The result was the B-1A, which made its maiden flight in December 1974. President Jimmy Carter cancelled the program in 1977.
President Ronald Reagan revived the program and called for 100 B-1Bs to comprise a fleet of supersonic strategic bombers. Plans, however, called for speed to be sacrificed for payload, with the end result being a jet that could carry a larger bomb load than the B-52 Stratofortress while having the capability to achieve speeds greater than Mach 1.
The first Lancer, "The Wings of Freedom," tail number 85-0073, arrived at the 28th BW Jan. 21, 1987. Gen. John T. Chain Jr., Strategic Air Command commander, delivered the first jet on that cold day 20 years ago. After he landed, the general made remarks that now seem prophetic:
"Too often, people think of SAC bombers ... only as carriers of nuclear weapons," General Chain said. "We have to change that perception. The B-52 and B-1 have an enormous capability to contribute to this nation's conventional capability ... their firepower is awesome. They could strike a terrorist-type target anywhere in the world flying nonstop from the United States and return with air refueling."
Speaking those words nearly 20 years ago, it seems unlikely that General Chain could know just how accurate his prediction would be.
"As General Chain envisioned this plane 20 years ago, the vision 20 years from now can be significantly more lethal than we see today," said Col. Jeffry Smith, 28th BW commander. "The current iteration of the B-1B can be lethal in every air spectrum from surface to altitude with extraordinarily capable aircrews."
The bomber handily fulfilled its strategic role in the 1980s and 1990s, and began breaking records right out of the gate. In September 1987, a 37th Bomb Squadron crew broke 18 speed, distance and payload records on a closed course. Meanwhile, 28th BW B-1Bs began participating in global exercises like Giant Warrior 89-3 in Guam as early as 1988.
As time passed, the B-1B continued to break records. In 1992, Colonel Smith broke three time-to-climb world records while assigned to the 46th BS at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. In August 1993, two 28th BW bombers made the first B-1B circumnavigation of the globe.
The B-1B transitioned to a full-time conventional mission and had its combat debut in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. The 28th BW's 77th BS, now the 77th Weapons Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, flew bombing missions in support of Operation Allied Force in the Balkans in 1999.
Today, B-1Bs have been engaged in support of the current war on terrorism. While supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, B-1Bs also participated in Operation Southern Watch in 2003 and saw it transition to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Even today, the B-1B is evolving as a weapons platform. The aircraft continues to receive technological upgrades and cutting edge standoff munitions.
"The B-1B started as an untested, immature airplane initially, even lacking technical order manuals ... the airplanes just sat on alert for several years," said Colonel Smith. "Today, the airplane is capable and flexible. With the Block E modification, we provide combat capability, flexibility and an extended range greater than any other aircraft in United States history. We not only carry the most firepower of any United States Air Force aircraft, we carry multiple varieties of multiple weapons on the same airplane. That gives the combatant commander tremendous lethality in support of the global war on terror."
Maj. Jon Creer, an assistant operations officer at the 34th BS, participated in the first launch of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile by an operational B-1B on Aug. 30.
"The avionics suite and weapons capability of the B-1B is better now than it has ever been," Major Creer said. "Over the last three years, the software and hardware upgrades, plus the addition of global positioning system guided munitions like the (guided bomb) unit - 31 and GBU-38, have increased the combat capability and will continue to improve as the airframe received planned upgrades."
Even as the Air Force plans to develop a next generation bomber, the B-1B continues to surprise supporters and critics alike. As the aircraft continues to serve, it will continue to improve and remain the backbone of the American bomber force, 28th BW aircrews agree.