WASHINGTON — The B-1B Lancer has successfully fired a stealthy cruise missile from an external pylon for the first time, adding another capability to the Bone’s massive arsenal and potentially paving the way for the bomber to launch hypersonic missiles in the future.
During the demonstration, held Dec. 4 at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, the B-1 launched an inert AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM, from an external pylon that normally would carry the Sniper targeting pod.
The test proves the B-1B can be configured to carry weapons externally — opening the door for new weapons configurations for the formidable Bone, including the potential ability to launch hypersonic missiles when they become available.
“Arming a limited number of B-1s with more weapons externally, could enable Global Strike Command to provide more weapons for geographic Combatant Commanders while putting fewer aircraft and aircrew in harm’s way,” said Gen. Tim Ray, who leads Air Force Global Strike Command.
The test was conducted by the 419th Flight Test Squadron with a B-1 assigned to the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Boeing is the prime contractor for the B-1, while Lockheed Martin manufactures JASSM.
To launch the JASSM externally, the Air Force team had to reassign one of the B-1′s internal weapon stations to the hard point on the forward right hand side of the aircraft. The team also modified the pylon itself “to allow for different connector configurations, and the internal wiring was replaced with harnesses that would support its new role,” said N. Keith Maynard, the special instrumentation flight chief for the 812th Airborne Instrumentation Test Squadron.
Last year, the Air Force tested modifications to its internal bomb bay to allow it to carry heavier weapons. In November, the B-1B carried an inert JASSM missile on a pylon under the fuselage for the first time, further expanding the aircraft’s weapons load.
Earlier in its lifespan, the B-1′s external hardpoints were used to carry nuclear weapons, but the Air Force converted the B-1 to serve only conventional missions as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The conversion process involved welding a metal sleeve on each of the B-1s aft pylon attachments, preventing them from being used to carry air-launched cruise missiles.
Air Force Global Strike Command spokesman Lt. Col. David Faggard told Military.com in November the Air Force may pursue permanent modifications to the B-1B that would allow it to carry 24 JASSMs or Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles internally, as well as 6 to 12 of those weapons externally — giving two B-1s the firepower of three B-1s today.
If that occurs, the bomber “will remain treaty-compliant” because “the expanded capabilities will be conventional-only,” he said.
Now that the launch is over, the Air Force test team is focused on analyzing the data gathered. Simulations show that a launch of a JASSM from a B-1 should conform to the same timeline as when launched from the left pylon of a B-52, said Agustin Martinez of the 419th FLTS.
To collect imagery of the missile launch, the Air Force outfitted the B-1 with high speed cameras that can capture up to 500 frames per second.
“The most important product for this specific mission is excellent imagery of the release from multiple angles to not only verify safe separation but to provide information about the weapon itself, like fin deployment,” Maynard said.
Despite the potential for new weapons capabilities, the Air Force still plans to reduce the number of B-1s in the bomber fleet.
During the FY21 budget request, the service announced that it would retire 17 B-1s that had become particularly difficult to maintain after years of hard flying in the Middle East. The money saved would be diverted to other Air Force modernization priorities, including space and joint all domain command and control.
Last week, the House and Senate armed services committees agreed to allow the Air Force to mothball those bombers as long as it could maintain a combat-coded B-1 fleet of at least 36 bombers. It must also put four of the 17 retired bombers into long-term storage, so that they can be refurbished and flown if needed in the future.
Meanwhile, the tempo of operations for the B-1 community remains high as the Air Force balances short and long-term deployments of its bombers across the globe.
On Dec. 6, the Air Force announced that B-1 bombers from the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron at Elsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, had temporarily deployed to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
While in Guam, the bombers will participate in training exercises with partner nations and conduct strategic deterrence missions, the service said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.