This article originally featured on Over The Horizon and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.
By Will Spears and Ross Hobbs
Abstract: Rather than sending the B-1 Lancer into early retirement, the Department of Defense could transfer it to the Navy for duty as a land-based ship-killer. Considering its speed, range, payload, and flexibility to employ the new Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), the B-1 is an ideal candidate for rebirth as a Sea Control Bomber.
For better than a decade, the United States’ defense establishment has agonized over China’s aggressive military modernization. A growing arsenal of land-based anti-ship missiles abets an increasingly capable and assertive Chinese navy, threatening to quietly transform the East and South China Seas into de-facto Chinese territory if not forcefully challenged. The military aspects of this competition demand an ability to fight in the contested environment, prompting the development of concepts like the former Air-Sea Battle and its successor, JAM-GC, as well as a steady drumbeat of calls from senior leaders for disruptive thinking and creative solutions.
It was in this spirit of disruptive thinking that, at a CNAS-hosted panel discussion titled “A New American Way of War,” former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work casually offered up a fascinating bit of heresy:
“If the Air Force is getting rid of the B-1 bomber, I’d say ‘You are out of maritime strike.’ We’re going to give the B-1 to the Navy, we’re going to load up with 3,000 LRASMs, and we’re going to base them in Guam and all over the place, and in the first 72 hours [of a conflict] they are going to go out and hunt down and kill every ship in sight.”
Amateurs gush disruptive ideas all the time, but when an industry heavyweight like Robert Work speaks out, it’s prudent to explore his opinions. Work’s conjecture was nested in a broader discussion, beginning around the 53-minute mark, lamenting the self-imposed limitations of “jointness” in driving procurement decisions. Rather than treating land-based strike as a proprietary mission of the Air Force, Work suggests that the Navy revive its concept of the Patrol Bombing (VPB) Squadron, which employed land-based aircraft to sink enemy ships in WWII. A force of LRASM-equipped naval patrol bombers, Work contends, could destroy an adversary’s fleet from the air without tangling with its anti-ship missile systems.
“In other words,” Work continued, “give the whole Chinese anti-access / area denial network no targets to shoot at.”
Secretary Work is not the only defense expert to propose that the Navy get into the bomber business. Analyst Robert Haddick devoted several pages of his influential book Fire on the Water to the idea. Unlike Work, Haddick proposed that the Navy acquire its own fleet of the next-generation Long Range Strike Bomber (or what has become the B-21), in a joint arrangement with the Air Force. To pay for it, Haddick suggested that the Navy scale back on purchases of the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, F-35C Joint Strike Fighters, and DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which he argued would be of limited usefulness in a missile-contested environment. Haddick wrote:
“With these stealthy bombers instead, the Navy would have maritime airpower that would actually be useful against China’s navy under way in the heavily defended Near Seas and against the PLA’s naval bases and ‘anti-navy’ forces—missions too dangerous for the Navy’s aircraft carriers and destroyers.”
Work and Haddick both recognized that a Navy-operated bomber runs against contemporary notions of “jointness,” notions which Work characterized as a “monolithic cudgel.” They both emphasized the importance of mission effectiveness, or “what can get the job done,” over parochial service interests or respect for swim lanes. For Haddick, specifically, it’s all about who is responsible to achieve control of a contested sea—a perennial Navy mission. If the Navy will be held accountable to control the sea, Haddick argued, then it should have the tools necessary to do it. That, to Haddick, means bombers. He continued:
“Under the theories of Air-Sea Battle and joint operational access, it shouldn’t matter which service, or combination of services, actually does the work. But in practice, the Navy will have the most intense interest both in maritime challenges, such as land-based “anti-navy” forces, and in development of the capabilities and doctrine necessary to cope with such challenges. Top-level policymakers interested in making sure the “anti-navy” problem is fixed will have a strong reason to assign the problem—and the resources—to the Navy.”
Fire on the Water was published in 2014, and while it has become required reading in war colleges for its depiction of China’s military expansion, Haddick’s call for a naval variant of the Long-Range Strike Bomber never garnered much attention. Concern over the high-end fight has only grown, though, and Work’s recent conjecture is a case in point which reframes Haddick’s argument. A rigorous testing program has determined the B-1 could fly through 2040 without a major life extension, but the Air Force has decided to retire it early to make room for the B-21 Raider. What if, instead of going to the boneyard, the B-1 were reassigned to the Navy?
The B-1 as a Sea Control Bomber
The Rockwell B-1 has had an interesting ride as a program of record. Designed to replace the 1960s-era B-52 as the Air Force’s primary nuclear bomber, the first B-1A flew in 1974. It was canceled by the Carter administration before entering production but then revived as the B-1B Lancer under Reagan. The B-1B featured improved avionics and greater payload than its predecessor, as well as an 85 percent reduction in radar cross-section at a slight penalty to speed. 100 were built; 63 remain in service today. It was divested of the nuclear mission in 1994, its enormous bomb bays repurposed to a variety of conventional attack munitions.
A classic example of Cold War-era design for lethality, the B-1 offers a combination of speed, flexibility, payload, and range that remains unmatched in its class. Capable of traveling for hours at near supersonic speeds, it can surge across vast oceans faster and with less refueling support than any current US or allied nation aircraft. It is also more maneuverable than other bombers and far more flexible. B-1 crews train at both high and low altitudes to perform a variety of mission sets, including large-scale standoff weapon attacks, large-scale Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) attacks, Close Air Support (CAS), Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance (SCAR), Non-traditional Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (NTISR), and Air Operations in Maritime Surface Warfare (AOMSW) which includes Counter Fast Attack Craft (FAC)/Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC), Aerial Mine Laying, and War at Sea against surface vessels.
The Navy’s primary use for the B-1 would be for the delivery of standoff weapons like LRASM or the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) against peer adversaries. These could destroy high-end warships and coastal cruise missile systems on short notice and from a comfortable distance, creating multiple avenues of approach for distributed naval forces. In scenarios short of war, they provide a powerful deterrent to maritime aggression, demonstrating both the capability and the resolve to project power into a contested environment. In asymmetric or low-intensity conflicts the B-1 would continue to deliver the same versatile combat power that it has for decades, only it would be administered by the Navy instead of the Air Force.
This versatility is probably the B-1’s most compelling feature. Of all bombers in service, the B-1 doesn’t just carry the largest payload (75,000 pounds; the B-52 and B-2 carry 70,000 and 40,000 pounds respectively), but its repertoire of supported weapons and combat systems is among the most elaborate fielded by any aircraft today. Included are the aforementioned long-range standoff weapons (LRASM and JASSM), as well as GPS- and laser-guided JDAMs (GBU-31, 38, 54), unguided bombs and sea mines (Mk-82, 84, 62, 65), and a multitude of sensors including the Sniper targeting pod and a Synthetic Aperture Radar. It also features a powerful defensive avionics suite, capable of providing electronic countermeasures against advanced threat systems.
Some examples of potential Navy combat loadouts and mission sets are below. B-1 squadrons normally train to a minimum of two aircraft for a given mission, so the ordnance brought to bear would probably reflect some multiple of the following:
- Sea Denial: 24 LRASM
- A2/AD Rollback: 8 LRASM & 16 JASSM
- Strategic Attack: 24 JASSM
- Aerial Mine Laying: 84 Mk-62 or 12 Mk-65
- Counter FAC/FIAC: 10 CBU-105D/B and 6 GBU-54
- CAS for SOF/USMC: 8x GBU-31, 6x GBU-38, 6x GBU-54
In addition to firepower, versatility is also a function of range. Without aerial refueling, the B-1 can fly for over 8 hours, or approximately 3,500 nautical miles. To put this in perspective, it can fly from Hawaii to Guam without refueling, or perhaps more pertinently, from Guam to the Taiwan Strait and back. With refueling, B-1 missions have exceeded 24 hours. A notional Concept of Operations could distribute the B-1 fleet between CONUS naval air stations and established overseas airbases like Andersen (Guam), Hickam (Hawaii) and Al Udeid (Qatar). Like they are today, these would remain on-call 24/7 for immediate response to emergent tasking with or without aerial refueling. Deployed in concert with missile-bearing attack submarines, and empowered by flexible refueling options like carrier-based unmanned tankers, a distributed force of Sea Control Bombers would present a complex and risk-prohibitive planning dilemma to any would-be maritime aggressor.
Many critics would argue that any new aircraft acquisitions should be unmanned. That may be true, provided that we ignore the unresolved issues with autonomous targeting in a communications-denied environment. At any rate, the B-1 is not a new acquisition; it is a thoroughly established system. In this sense it can serve as a proof-of-concept, buying time for an autonomous replacement to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC).
For navalists intrigued by the B-1’s superlative capabilities, excitement should be tempered with respect for its costs. Unsurprisingly, the B-1 is a labor-intensive beast, demanding 74 maintenance man-hours per flying hour (MMH/FH) with an estimated cost per flying hour of $70K (to be fair, the B-52 also costs about $70K per flying hour, while the B-2 costs between $110K and $150K). These are Air Force estimates and may not be perfectly fungible with the Navy’s models for aircraft ownership costs, but their implications are clear. Even if the B-1 fleet were reassigned to the Navy “free of charge,” there is little doubt that manning and maintaining it would be expensive.
Then there’s the matter of age. Due to factors like fatigue and diminishing manufacturing sources, aircraft tend to become more expensive to keep airworthy as they get older. While various modernization efforts have prevented the B-1 from falling into obsolescence, the airframe is clearly in the “aging” phase of its life cycle, as Congressional Budget Office analysts found that the B-1’s cost per flying hour grew by a real rate (i.e., independent of inflation) of 2.9% between 1999 and 2016.
Some of the B-1’s ownership costs will be reduced through modernizations as moving parts are eliminated and high-failure electronics are replaced with solid-state circuitry. Some of these modernization efforts are in progress today; others were shelved with the decision to retire the B-1 but could be revived. Additional savings could be gleaned by accepting sacrifices in performance, as might be prudent upon reassignment of the B-1 to a different mission. For instance, if the Sea Control mission set does not require supersonic speeds, the B-1 could be outfitted with engines that are less powerful but more reliable and fuel-efficient. Any such modifications would demand an initial injection of funding, though, as would the necessary modernizations to keep the airframe flying through 2040 or beyond.
When viewing B-1’s costs against the anticipated price of the B-21 Raider program, it’s little surprise that the Air Force is ready to retire it. It is hardly efficient to support four different classes of bomber simultaneously. Their decision raises the question, though: If the B-1 is too expensive for the Air Force, whose primary mission is long-range strike, then how could it be affordable to the Navy, whose primary mission is not long-range strike? If the B-1 were reassigned to the Navy without additional funding to man and maintain it, then it could easily turn into a financial albatross, diverting resources from core Navy priorities (e.g., warships) to essentially duplicate the capabilities of a sister service.
The heresy of a Navy-operated, land-based long-range bomber crosses service lines. For the Air Force, it would represent an intrusion upon what has long been its operational territory as well as the original rationale for its existence as an independent armed service. From a more practical standpoint, rather than turn over a fully furnished weapons system to another service, Air Force leadership would almost certainly prefer to gut the B-1 and its associated logistics tail, keeping the useful parts inside the Air Force.
For the Navy, practical concerns could be difficult to distinguish from emotional resistance, because taking on the B-1 would probably demand sacrifices in some programs more traditionally recognizable as “Navy.” In theory, being land-based should have no bearing on the B-1’s legitimacy as a naval instrument, because the Navy has long relied upon land-based aircraft. Platforms like the P-8 Poseidon and the MQ-4C Triton are critical elements of today’s balanced fleet. In reality, though, a heavy bomber like the B-1 would upset the balance, instantly becoming one of the Navy’s most exquisite and potent offensive weapons. It would give credence to the charge, which the Navy denies carefully, that major surface combatants and aircraft carriers are too vulnerable to fight under threat of weapons like the DF-21D.
At issue is the Navy’s sense of identity, and whether it is derived from what a navy is (ships and aircraft… but principally ships) or what a navy does (control the maritime domain). Indeed, many of the Navy’s traditional missions would receive no value from the B-1. It cannot pull into a new ally’s port for a courtesy visit, nor can it board and search a vessel suspected of trafficking weapons. It cannot destroy a midcourse ballistic missile, nor can it hunt and kill enemy submarines. What the B-1 can do is sink ships, a lot of them, and quickly. It can do this on short notice across vast distances, and it can do it without engaging “A2/AD” missile systems. That the Navy could use a weapon like that is beyond dispute; whether it should, depends on what the Navy would give up and the relative importance of the Sea Control mission. It is worthy of analysis.
Ultimately, it may not be about what either service wants, but what Congress wants. The B-1 fleet is a major investment of national treasure, and Congress could decide that it should be kept airworthy through the entirety of its service life as a matter of good stewardship. Some representatives, ostensibly concerned about peer adversaries and a relative decline in US military power, may prefer to keep the B-1 flying in whatever capacity could be justified. Under this scenario, it would certainly be simpler and cheaper to keep it under the Air Force, unless Congress was persuaded that the Navy would make better use of it.
The B-21 is expected to reach IOC in the mid- to late- 2020s, with the phase-out of B-1 beginning in 2030. Air Force Global Strike Command has already begun to shift focus away from the B-1, having announced intentions to extend the B-52 through 2050. Once the B-21 starts flying, support for B-1 will almost certainly stop. Considering these timelines, if B-1 were to be reassigned to the Navy, the ideal time for transition would be sometime between 2028 and 2030.
The B-21, similar to the B-2 in its design concept and stealth features, is not capable of replacing the B-1’s speed, flexibility, or payload. The early retirement of the B-1 will represent a decline in flexible US striking power across all Unified Combatant Commands at a time when it is needed most. Ideas for keeping that power at the ready, however unorthodox, should be explored thoroughly. This article’s purpose has not been to advocate for the B-1’s reassignment to the Navy, but to advocate for its consideration by a third party independent of service biases. Without thorough and professional analysis, there are too many variables at play to comment on whether this idea would be good or bad for the Navy, the Air Force, or the nation. This much is certain though: The B-1’s continued service would be bad for the PLA Navy.
LCDR Will Spears is a US Navy submariner and a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Command and Staff College. He has served aboard multiple attack submarines in the Western Pacific area of responsibility.
Maj Ross “RAW” Hobbs is a B-1 Weapons Officer Instructor Pilot and a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at Air Command and Staff College. He has over 2,000 hours of flying in the B-1 and other platforms with multiple deployments, including the Western Pacific area of responsibility.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of the Air Force or any organization of the US government.
Featured Image: A U.S. Air Force B-1 Lancer Bomber flies by the aircraft carrier USS NIMITZ (CVN 68). Nimitz is deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Southern Watch, 12/25/1997 (PH2 Christopher G. Ware)