On April 14, 2018, two B-1B Lancer bombers fired off payloads of Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles against weapons storage plants in western Syria, part of a shock-and-awe response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his citizens that also included strikes from Navy destroyers and submarines.
In all, the two bombers fired 19 JASSMs, successfully eliminating their targets. But the moment would ultimately be one of the last — and certainly most publicized — strategic strikes for the aircraft before operations began to wind down for the entire fleet.
A few months after the Syria strike, Air Force Global Strike Command commander Gen. Tim Ray called the bombers back home. Ray had crunched the data, and determined the non-nuclear B-1 was pushing its capabilities limit. Between 2006 and 2016, the B-1 was the sole bomber tasked continuously in the Middle East. The assignment was spread over three Lancer squadrons that spent one year at home, then six month deployed — back and forth for a decade.
The constant deployments broke the B-1 fleet. It’s no longer a question of if, but when the Air Force and Congress will send the aircraft to the Boneyard. But Air Force officials are still arguing the B-1 has value to offer, especially since it’s all the service really has until newer bombers hit the flight line in the mid-2020s.
Some in the Air Force are pinning hopes on new technologies to keep the B-1 fleet alive even for just a little while longer. On top of that, the Air Force must soon deliver a more fine-tuned bomber strategy that includes the B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress. Lawmakers say they want the Air Force to better explain how the service plans to sustain its legacy aircraft while ushering in the brand-new B-21 Raider.
At the same time, Air Force officials have hinted that “controversial” decisions may soon be on the way. Will the service ultimately opt to end B-1 operations prior to the aircraft’s scheduled retirement in 2036?
“This is a tough choice,” said Mark Gunzinger, Director for Government Programs and Wargaming at the Mitchell Institute, when describing the tradeoffs the Air Force may be forced to make.