DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas: The non-nuclear B-1 Lancer has adapted from a strategic mission to a close-air support role, and will continue to play an effective part in today’s fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to leaders here.
While the remaining bombers in the Air Force inventory transferred to Air Force Global Strike Command, the B-1 has become the go-to airframe when combatant commanders want a show of force or support for ground troops.
“The predominance of what we are doing right now in theater is close-air support; non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and armed overwatch” said Col. Charlie Catoe, 7th Operations Group commander. “We are supporting the troops on the ground.”
“The B-1’s very flexible. What makes us very useful in the current fight is that we have a large payload, we can carry a varied amount of weapons,” Colonel Catoe said. “If you need to go kinetic, you have a lot of choices on what you can do.”
Operating at approximately 20,000 feet, the B-1 waits or “loiters” with up to 35 tons of precision-guided weapons. When ground troops encounter the enemy, the bomber’s aircrew can engage in minutes because of the B-1’s readiness and speed.
“We’re fast for what you might think a bomber can do,” the colonel said. “The loiter time is exceptional so we don’t require as much tanker time to stay and hang around over the fight. Afghanistan is a good-sized country and we can dash back and forth across it as we need to, if somebody needs help in a hurry.”
When the Lancer flies low and fast over enemy combatants in a show of force, the 200,000-pound aircraft can intimidate the enemy handily.
Since the airframe continues to play an important role, Air Force and Air Combat Command officials are looking at ways to improve the venerable B-1.
“We’ve been in constant upgrade on numerous systems; the airplane never sits still,” Colonel Catoe said. “There are structural improvements that are going on as the airframe is not getting any younger.”
Colonel Catoe said that the Sniper advanced targeting pod recently was added to the B-1 at the request of combatant commanders in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. It’s another sensor that has improved the utility of the aircraft.
Now with this tool, it’s not a matter of the pilot sending a precision weapon to an area; the Sniper ATP can enable the pilot to put the weapon at the correct address, Colonel Catoe said.
As the B-1 nears its 25th anniversary, a new chapter could be opening up for the bomber with an even more precise weapon, the airborne laser. The Air Force’s chief scientist, Dr. Werner Dahm, flew on a Lancer recently to see if the crew could operate an airborne laser platform in the tightly spaced cockpit while continuing to do their duties. The laser is capable of precision targeting and minimizes unintended damage when the enemy places hostile networks near schools and mosques. The Lancer could be looking at a prototype laser by 2014.
“All of the new things that the B-1 is improving or changing are brought here to be tested and developed. And we also have the weapons school people who work the tactical end of it,” Colonel Catoe said.
The “Home of the B-1” is how Colonel Catoe refers to Dyess Air Force Base as units here train, equip and field people and weapons for the B-1.
Dyess is host to a schoolhouse and a combat unit. School instructors train new pilots from undergraduate pilot training and weapon system officers from undergraduate navigator training and qualify them in the B-1. Then they are assigned to combat units at Ellsworth AFB, S.D., or here at Dyess.
“Whether flying or maintaining, or on the ground interacting with our Army brothers, there’s an awful lot of great Airmen doing a great job,” Colonel Catoe said.