The Air Force is obviously well pleased with its new bomber, the B-1B.
“On the B-1B, we have what we need—and what we can afford,” Maj. Gen. Harold J. R. Williams, USAF Director of Operational Requirements, told an Aerospace Education
Center Roundtable in late May. That pretty well sums up the prevailing assessment.
A determined effort by both the Air Force and industry has kept the B-1B acquisition within cost and schedule limits, and USAF says the aircraft has met or exceeded specifications during flight tests. Full performance at high speed and low level has yet to be demonstrated, but program officials are convinced that this capability will come along as the system matures. The Air Force says it has encountered only minor problems—nothing that can’t be fixed—in its testing of the B-1B.
Indeed, roundtable panelist Charles W. Corddry of the Baltimore Sun speculated that politics may have more to do with subsequent B-1 developments than either cost or technical factors. He wondered if too tight a lid had not been placed on the B-1 program.
Given that the Administration has capped B-1B procurement at 100 aircraft and a cost of $20.5 billion in 1981 dollars, Mr. Corddry worried that “the B-1 may not have everything in it that is the best that’s possible to put in it.” In addition to expressing concern that the B-1 may be shortchanged on the latest technology, he took issue with the numerical constraints, asking:
“Generals, what are you doing about the hundred-and-first B-1B?”
“The one-hundred B-1 buy is sort of like pregnancy,” said Gen. Russell E. Dougherty, USAF (Ret.), AFA Executive Director and Roundtable moderator, “It’s not a requirement—it’s a condition. That is what $20.5 billion will buy.” He said that the original requirement for B-1 bombers, calculated when he was Commander in Chief of Strategic Air Command, was for 235 operational aircraft.
The Air Force is currently committed to a two-bomber program, in which 100 advanced technology “Stealth” aircraft will be deployed along with the 100 B-1Bs. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) among others, has been vigilant for any twitching that might indicate a move to extend the B-1 production run. (See also “As Sam Nunn Sees It,” p. 72 of this issue.)
Rep. Bill Chappell (D-Fla.) told the Roundtable audience that Congress is firm on the figures and that “we are going to hold the complementary programs of the B-1B and the ATB to one hundred each.” Representative Chappell led House action in the Ninety-sixth Congress to retain a manned bomber option in the US defense strategy.
Mr. Corddry asked: “Are the boys in the back room working on the B-1C, D, E, or F? And in the new birth of competition in the Pentagon, will it be competed against the ATB for a while to keep both companies honest?”
The idea of a follow-on B-1 model has arisen and has been batted down several times over the past few years. The Air Force has said not only that it needs features that the ATB will have—and that cannot be achieved by souping up the B-1 with Stealth technology—but also that the deployment of two different bombers will make it more difficult for the Soviet Union to devise defenses against them.
Maj. Gen, William E. Thurman, Aeronautical Systems Division deputy for the B-1, addressed the question of technological obsolescence in view of the strict baseline on B-1 cost and schedule:
“We have been concerned over the fact that we had to build an airplane that could be modified and into which we could add the latest capabilities at low cost without restructuring or rewiring the whole airplane. So that was an area where we used some of our advanced technologies—to build a modular concept for the B-1.”
General Thurman has since been promoted to lieutenant general and is now Vice Commander of Air Force Systems Command.
Representative Chappell said that extra R&D money had been put into the B-1 account specifically to fund state-of-the-art adjustments. “We have made changes in the airplane,”
General Thurman said, pointing to upgrades in the computers and the radar. Another improvement was to tie together the offensive and defensive avionics systems so they can feed each other cues on what their sensors are picking up. “We found that this was a simple software change that cost less than $100,000 for all 100 B-1s,” General Thurman said.
Careful logistics planning began early in the B-1B development. The sleek new bomber is packed with complex, integrated electronics, and that, according to Gen. Earl T. O’Loughlin, Commander of Air Force Logistics Command, influences the support concept for it in major ways.
“While our work load is not decreased in absolute terms, it is shifted considerably in nature and emphasis,” he said. “We now do fewer stock, store, and issue actions, but more engineering and engineering-related functions.” He said that avionics amount to almost twenty percent of the unit cost of each B-1B, as compared with one percent for avionics in the B-52 when it first entered the Air Force inventory thirty years ago.
General O’Loughlin cited the observation of a British scientist who holds that the next generation of combat aircraft can be regarded as complex avionics systems surrounded by metal configured to allow the avionics to fly.
“The general acceleration toward total avionics integration will haves profound impact on the way we support a system such as the B-1B,” he said. “When the data from the flight controls, the weapon delivery system, and the electronic warfare system all become enmeshed in the computer architecture of an integrated information network, the old classifications will really become meaningless. We may no longer be able to separate the airplane into discrete functional areas for our technology repair centers to handle.”
Test Results Encouraging
In view of rumors circulating about performance problems and flight envelope restrictions (see “The B-1B Whisper Campaign,” p. 29, June 1985 issue), General Thurman’s report on test results was of particular interest.
“There are no show-stoppers,” he said. “We’ve found a lot of little things wrong, but fortunately we’ve found an equal number of fixes. The systems on the airplane are working very well. The F101 engine not only gives us margins in any way you want to measure the performance itself, but for the first time ever, we’re building a 3,000-hour engine that looks as if its on-the-wing time will exceed five years. We’ve never had that on any system in the Air Force before.”
The most vexing problem, he said, has been foreign-object damage (FOD). The B-1B is not a “ramp sweeper,” though. The difficulty is with “structural FOD”—bits and pieces of debris and manufacturing residue that cause damage that’s barely visible and that can be felt only with a fingernail. In less sophisticated aircraft, such small nicks would not count for anything, but in the B-1B they do. General Thurman said he was confident that the problem will be fixed.
“The deficiencies that we see in the airplane result principally from the immaturity of some of the new systems,” he said. “We are also finding some of the typical kinds of problems that you find when you start to operate new systems. It takes a while to build up the capability to do terrain-following with your radar. We’re pleased with the progress we’re making.”
The aircraft has not yet demonstrated full operation at 200 feet at high speeds. Low-altitude penetration of enemy airspace is a central performance standard for the new bomber.
“A B-1 in penetration is at faster speed than a .45-caliber bullet as it leaves the barrel of a gun,” General Thurman said. “You can imagine there is very little margin for error, and you have to approach these things in a very systematic way.
“As we build up to this capability, we are also going to be delivering airplanes to the Strategic Air Command. We are going to give SAC all the capability it needs to train its pilots and prepare for initial operational capability in September 1986. But the airplane, initially, won’t be able to take off at its maximum weight. It won’t have all of the avionics systems demonstrated in flight tests. We will not have cleared all of the weapons on that airplane, initially. We’ll be phasing in those capabilities over time. And they will coincide with the delivery of the initial operational capability of the airplane.”
Moderator Dougherty said that the pattern was not unusual—that most new aircraft have some validation and demonstration work remaining to be done when they are first delivered. “It’s really nothing new,” General O’Loughlin agreed. “It took us a long time to develop SRAM [Short-Range Attack Missile] capability in the FB-111, long after we had IOC.”
Need for Munitions
The Air Force has always envisioned the B-1 as at multipurpose bomber, a long-range platform that could deliver both nuclear and conventional ordnance. The lack of effective conventional munitions has disturbed strategic planners for some time. Nobody is better aware of the outstanding requirement than General Williams, who was SAC DCS/Plans before moving to the Air Staff as Director of Requirements.
“Munitions technology is moving fast,” he said. “As new conventional munitions come along—particularly those that give us the capability to stand outside the most lethal range of enemy defenses, launch, and strike with a high degree of precision—we anticipate they will be bought and integrated into the B-1B conventional capability. We don’t have those munitions at this point.”
The B-1B benefits from Military Standard 1760, under which the aircraft and all future munitions will be designed to fit each other. “When a weapon is available,” said General Thurman, “incorporating it into the airplane is going to be a relatively easy thing to do, as compared with going back and wiring the airplane for a unique weapon.”
Nuclear munitions also need updating. A leading item in this category is the Stealth-like SRAM II, which will be carried by the ATB as well as by the B-1B. The requirement for this missile is driven by the results of aging on the current SRAM and by the increased hardness and mobility of Soviet targets.
“SRAM dates from 1972 and was designed originally for a shelf life of five years,” General Williams said. “We are having increasing problems with the solid propellant. It’s beginning to break down. We need to be able to launch a low radar cross-section, very-high-speed supersonic short munition, outside the enemy defenses, but one that has a high degree of accuracy and that can attack some of the Soviets’ most difficult targets.
“By the time we get SRAM II, the original munition designed for five years will be twenty years old. We think it’s important that we move along with urgency.”
Legacy of the A Model
A legacy of historical circumstance gave the B-1B an extraordinary base upon which to build. The B-1A was well along in development before the Carter Administration killed it. While the B-1B is a superior machine in many respects—the best known example being its radar cross section, which is ten times smaller than the B-1A’s and a hundred times smaller than the B-52’s—it is also true that it has drawn extensively on the B-1A program.
“We hit the ground running,” said General Thurman. “We reconstituted the team from the original B-1A program so we could share that experience. We used the best of the old program in fixing only the things that needed to be fixed.”
Logistics was a tough part, he said, because “in the original program, there was nothing done on logistics. We didn’t have a base there from which to depart.”
Overall, though, the B-1B was judged to be so unusually mature for a new acquisition that the Air Force decided to do the system integration work itself rather than to contract it out.
“Because the Air Force accepted the risk of integrating the system, we believe that we’ve saved somewhere between $600 million and $800 million over what we would have paid a contractor to accept that risk,” General Thurman said. “It worked well because of where we were in the development. We had a lot of experience with the B-1A airplane. We understood what its performance was and what its capabilities were. We essentially made avionics changes to the B-1A to give it the advanced capabilities the airplane currently has.”
He said that on more typical developments, where there are many unknowns and much technological uncertainty, the Air Force is better off letting an experienced contractor handle the risk of system integration.
SAC has been waiting for the B-1 for a long, long time, and the new bomber is assured of an enthusiastic welcome as deployments begin.
“I flew the B-1 on its first full-length combat profile mission in 1977, said General Dougherty, who was CINCSAC during later development of the B-1A. “I recognized then, to the point of conviction, that it could do what it was designed to do—penetrate successfully to various target areas, deliver ordnance accurately, escape from those, and fly again and again and again.
“I said in an interview just after that flight, ‘I wish we had it now.’ That was true then. It’s even more true today.”