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The Los Angeles Times December 12, 2001

Maligned B-1 Bomber Now Proving Its Worth

By Peter Pae

No aircraft in recent history has been maligned as much as the B-1 bomber, considered an albatross by the Air Force the day it rolled off the Palmdale production line, labeled a flying Edsel of the U.S. arsenal and later derided as a relic of the Cold War.

For critics of defense spending, the B-1 became a symbol of a military industrial complex gone berserk, a massive $28-billion boondoggle bolstered by a vast political lobbying machine that was enamored by the 60,000 jobs it created in Southern California and elsewhere.

But in an odd twist of fate, the B-1 has become the workhorse of the air campaign in Afghanistan, credited with knocking out key Taliban and Al Qaeda forces with devastating precision and helping to hasten U.S. military operations in the Central Asian country. After more than three decades of unrelenting controversy, the B-1 is finally redeeming itself.

"It's finally getting the opportunity to prove its capabilities, which we knew it had when we built it," said Charles "Bill" Bright, who was the flight test manager for the B-1. Bright spent 15 years on the program before retiring in 1992. "It's been a pleasure to see them use it."

Its performance in Afghanistan, which included last month's bombing of an Al Qaeda leadership compound near Kandahar, has emboldened supporters who are fighting a Pentagon plan to slash the B-1 fleet by a third.

It comes at a time when President Bush wants the military to meet 21st century threats with a new generation of weapons and aircraft. Advocates for building more B-2 stealth bombers, which have played a comparatively modest role in the Afghanistan campaign, may view the B-1's successes as a hindrance to their cause.

Just three months before the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, the Pentagon proposed grounding 33 B-1s and applying the savings to improvements on the remaining fleet of 60 B-1s. Pentagon brass envisioned retiring the B-1 fleet sooner than planned.

Testifying before a House committee in August, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld derided the B-1 as "a 20-year-old system."

"It's not stealthy. It's designed for the Cold War. It has been headed toward expensive obsolescence," he said.

The plan drew immediate rebuke from members of Congress from Georgia, Kansas and Idaho, which would lose B-1 units. Under the proposal, the Air Force would consolidate the B-1 wings from those states with existing wings at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, which also happen to be the home states of President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

But as the B-1 debate raged on Capitol Hill, hijackers crashed their passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, putting the country on a war footing. It gave the B-1 a new lease on life and invigorated its supporters.

"They are going to try to use B-1's combat experience in Afghanistan to try to reverse the Pentagon proposal," said John Pike, a military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org.

But Rumsfeld has not backed off the proposal, which has emerged as the first major test of the Bush administration's ability to make sweeping changes to the military.

Many B-1 supporters are Republicans--going back to the days when the B-1 was considered the Republican bomber and the Northrop Grumman B-2 was considered the Democratic bomber. The two planes evolved in fierce competition, and to this day supporters are bitterly critical of each other's aircraft.

Republicans have accused the Pentagon of not giving the B-1 a fair share of credit for the bombing out of fear that it would undermine plans for the cutback.

While military analysts say the B-1 appears to be the "star player in Afghanistan" the Pentagon has been reluctant to talk about it. Eight B-1s based on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia are flying about four sorties a day dropping majority of the tonnage in Afghanistan, military sources say. But the Pentagon has steadfastly refused to provide details of the B-1's role.

Decades of Controversy

The bomber fleet for Operation Enduring Freedom, which also includes 10 B-52s, has flown 10% of the sorties but has accounted for 70% of the ordnance dropped in Afghanistan, supporters said.

B-2s, which must fly halfway around the world from their base in Missouri to reach Afghanistan, have not been used since the opening days of the air campaign. The B-2's ability to evade radar is no longer needed because there is little air defense left in Afghanistan.

"B-1 bombers have been kind of the stealth bomber of this air campaign," Pike said. "You rarely hear it being mentioned."

The bomber did, however, get some notice last month when the Pentagon revealed that a single B-1 was able to drop 10 so-called smart bombs on a compound near Kandahar where senior leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban were apparently gathered for a meeting.

A video taken by a trailing fighter showed bombs falling and blasts ripping through a compound of several buildings. A second video with a closer view showed that the compound was destroyed.

Critics, however, said Afghanistan has posed little challenge and has not provided the kind of adversary that U.S. aircraft are likely to face elsewhere or in the future.

"The B-1 has finally found an adversary it can compete with. A country that is totally defenseless," said Loren Thompson, defense policy analyst with the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank that has been pushing to have more B-2s built.

"Although it is performing reasonably well, Afghanistan has no air defenses. If it can't do well in Afghanistan, it can't succeed anywhere."

The B-1 program has been rife with controversy since President Nixon proposed the bomber in 1970. It would be the first supersonic bomber and would have the capability of delivering nuclear bombs deep inside the Soviet Union. But it first had to survive a barrage of criticism. In 1974, antiwar protesters tried to throw themselves under the wheels of the B-1 when the first prototype was rolled out.

In a convoluted series of political moves, President Carter canceled the project in 1977. Four years later, President Reagan revived the plane amid the Cold War fervor. Technically, the plane was re-dubbed B-1B.

"Controversy is almost like an adjective that is permanently attached to the airplane," an aerospace executive said in 1988, when the last of 100 B-1s rolled off the production line where more than 7,500 workers had completed a plane a week. It was the largest military program at the time.

The development and production of the B-1 by Rockwell International was among the most demanding in the history of aerospace. Three buildings with more than 1 million square feet of space were constructed in Palmdale in less than 18 months. The fast-track schedule was designed to move the bombers into operation as quickly as possible and to save money by producing them at the most efficient manufacturing rate.

"We were adding 1,000 people every month for 18 months," said Sam Iacobellis, the former B-1 program manager who like many on the program worked six- or seven-day weeks for six years. "We felt this was a national emergency program. We worked like we were on the front line of the Cold War."

Design Flaws, Equipment Failures

In 1985, the peak production year, 60,000 people worked on the bomber in 48 states, said Nick Kotz, author of "Wild Blue Yonder," a book about the B-1. (Rockwell later sold its aerospace business to Boeing Co.)

For all its problems, the B-1 was one of the few military projects that was finished ahead of schedule and under budget, a feat that has not been duplicated for a major program since.

But it could not escape revelations of design flaws and equipment failures even before the last plane rolled off the assembly line. The Air Force discovered that the B-1 had a flawed electronic jamming system that could not adequately protect the aircraft from the Soviets' more advanced surface-to-air missiles. Other nagging problems included leaky fuel tanks, a faulty navigation radar and a balky flight-control system. Then three B-1s crashed, adding to the voices that it was a technological dud.

When the Cold War ended, it essentially made obsolete the B-1's primary mission of delivering nuclear weapons. It prompted then-President George Bush to order the planes refitted--at a cost of about $3 billion--to carry conventional weapons. Last week, the Pentagon awarded Boeing a contract worth about $4.5 billion over 15 years to upgrade weapons equipment and install new defensive systems.

The upgrades will allow the B-1 to drop different kinds of weapons simultaneously from its three weapons bays. The work also will include installing fiber optic towed decoys to defend it from antiaircraft missile attacks.

"One adds lethality, and the other adds survivability," said Scott White, Boeing's B-1 program manager who first started on the B-1 program in 1972. "The B-1 can carry more weapons than any other aircraft," he added, noting that the B-1 can deliver 24 precision bombs, compared with one or two by a fighter jet. Despite its checkered history, B-1 pilots rave about the airplane, which has a joystick like fighter jets, compared with yoke found in other bombers and commercial jets. Although it may look like a large lumbering bird, the plane can fly from Los Angeles to New York in less than four hours at 200 feet above the ground without refueling. It also can do a 360-degree roll, a capability that the Pentagon does not acknowledge.

A B-1 pilot who has been flying missions over Afghanistan said in a telephone interview that precision-guided bombs have "changed the dynamics" of modern bombing campaigns.

With satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAMS, the weapons officer can change the bomb's intended target several times during flight, giving the operation far more flexibility and capability to strike targets quickly. The B-1 is the only bomber capable of carrying 24 JDAMS.

Recent Pentagon data from Afghanistan indicate that the B-1 is the least expensive way of dropping munitions, compared with the B-2, B-52 and even the F-15 fighter.

"I think this operation has really given a testament to the long-range bomber force," said Capt. Lucky, who spoke on condition imposed by the Pentagon that only his call sign could be used. A 30-year-old Livermore, Calif., native, Lucky has been flying the B-1 for seven years. "It's a marvelous plane," he said.


Copyright 2001 The Los Angeles Times