Oct 27, 2021
The U.S. Air Force’s 40-year-old B-1 bombers don’t have much time left. Worn out by the air campaigns over Iraq and Afghanistan, the B-1s are in line for replacement as the USAF’s new B-21 stealth bombers enter service over the next decade.
But it’s clear what the B-1s will be doing in their final years—hauling stealthy anti-ship missiles to threaten enemy fleets. Dramatic exercises over the Black Sea in recent years have underscored the swing-wing bomber’s new maritime strike role.
Four B-1s from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas in early October deployed to the Royal Air Force base at Fairford. In the pre-dawn darkness on Oct. 19, two of the bombers took off for what would be a 12-hour mission.
Clutching targeting pods under their bellies, the bombers code-name Dark 01 and Dark 02 flew east over the North Sea, topped off their fuel tanks courtesy of at least one USAF KC-135 from RAF Mildenhall, then winged south, bound for the Black Sea.
The Polish and Romanian air forces—as well as a Canadian air force contingent in Romania—seized the opportunity. All three air arms sent fighters to fly alongside the B-1s. In wartime, the non-stealthy bombers might need escort to protect them from Russian fighters.
The Black Sea has become a much more dangerous place since the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Crimea since then has become a veritable fortress on NATO’s southeastern flank.
The Kremlin has staged ships, fighters and missiles in Crimea. NATO ships and surveillance planes crisscross international waters and airspace in order to keep tabs on the build-up. In wartime, the Black Sea could become a shooting gallery. B-1s could be the biggest shooters.
When the 100 B-1s entered service in the early 1980s, they strictly were nuclear-strike assets. The USAF in the early 1990s de-nuclearized the type. The fleet steadily shrank through the 2000s. When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq two years later, there were around 60 B-1s in service.
The bombers spent more than a decade flying high and slow over arid battlegrounds, dropping bombs on insurgents and militants. The relentless pace of operations took a toll on the B-1s. The cost of maintaining the increasingly weary bombers spiked. The Air Force in 2020 begged
Congress for permission to retire the 17 most-fatigued B-1s, leaving 45 in service until the B-21 replaces them in the late 2020s and early 2030s.
In the meantime, the B-1 force pivoted. After 20 years flying over deserts and mountains, the B-1 squadrons shifted focus to water. With its 5,000-mile range and 25-ton payload, the bomber is ideal for maritime missions.
The B-1 in 2017 became the first type the USAF modified to carry the new Long-Range Anti-Ship missile, a stealthy, 300-mile munition with a high-tech, multi-mode seeker. A B-1 can carry as many as 24 of the $3-million missiles.
A pair of B-1s could shoot 48 LRASMs at Russia’s Baltic Fleet. Enough, perhaps, to sink the entire fleet in a single pass and eliminate the major threat to U.S. and allied ships in the region. “LRASM plays a critical role in ensuring U.S. naval access,” Lt. Col. Timothy Albrecht, a bomber planner with the 603rd Air Operations Center in Germany, said last year during an earlier B-1 deployment to Europe.
B-1s now routinely practice LRASM strikes. The Oct. 19 sortie saw the two bombers fly through international air space over the Black Sea. At least one Turkish air force KC-135 flew out to refuel the bombers before they headed back to Fairford.
That’s when a pair of Russian navy Su-30 fighters, based in Crimea, rose to intercept. The fighters flew alongside as the bombers topped off their tanks. “Violations of the state border of the Russian Federation were not allowed,” the Kremlin stated. To be clear, the B-1 crews weren’t trying to cross into Russian air space.
And in wartime, they wouldn’t need to do so. The LRASM’s long range would allow a B-1 to shoot at Russian ships anywhere in the Black Sea from inside NATO air space.