B-1B bomber modified to carry hypersonic missiles
The United States Air Force recently unveiled a reversible modification of its B-1B Lancer bomber that almost doubles its weapons payload and will allow it to one day carry hypersonic missiles. The demonstration was carried out by the 412th Test Wing, Air Force Global Strike Command, and industry partners on August 28 at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
An advanced version of the Cold War B-1 supersonic nuclear bomber of the 1970s, the B-1B originally entered service in 1985 as a stop-gap modification to fill a strategic hole until the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber was ready for service. Due to later arms control treaties, the B-1B had its capacity to operate nuclear weapons permanently disabled, but the flexibility of its weapons carriage design allows it to field a range of conventional munitions and it's expected to remain in service until the 2030s.
According to the Air Force, the key to this is the fact that the weapons bay of the B-1B has a moveable forward bulkhead that can be moved forward or back to suit different mission configurations. For the latest demonstration, a B-1B showed off its ability to carry weapons externally on hard points as well as inside using a longer bay.
"The purpose of the demonstration was to show that we’re still able to move the bulkhead from the forward intermediate bay to the forward location; increasing the intermediate bay capacity from 180 to 269 in (457 to 683 cm)," says Lieutenant. Colonel Dominic Ross, B-1B program element monitor, AFGSC. "Additionally, we demonstrated that we can still carry weapons externally on six of the eight hard points, which increases our overall carriage capacity."
The Air Force stresses that the B-1B will still only carry conventional weapons to keep it in line with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), but it will now be able to increase its weapon load from 24 to 40, as well as carry larger weapons in the 5,000-lb (2,300-kg) range, including hypersonic missiles.
To demonstrate this, the Edwards demonstration included a mock-up hypersonic weapon attached to the same Conventional Rotary Launcher (CRL) used in the B-52H bomber. In addition, an inert Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile was set to a pylon.
"It would basically increase the weapons capacity to make the bomber more efficient so that we’re able to strike more targets with the same aircraft," says Colonel Richard Barksdale, 28th Operations Group commander, from Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. "It would allow us to more efficiently plan for targeting and use fewer aircraft with fewer aircrews in harm’s way to strike the same number of targets. It would also decrease the support required, whether that’s tankers or other support assets.
"It really shows the aircraft was originally designed for that capability; to move that bulkhead forward and make a larger bay, it shows the forethought of the original engineers and now, that can potentially come into fruition. To me, just the opportunity to increase the weapons load capacity is pretty exciting. It’s a pretty impressive capability."