DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- It was always intended to loiter for hours above a battlefield, swiftly maneuver at a moment's notice and, of course, bring the bombs.
But in the early stages of the B-1B Lancer's life, no one thought the long-range bomber would be a leading close-air support mission aircraft dominating bomb runs or bellying up to U.S. and coalition forces on the ground.
"Twenty-five years ago, if you would have said the B-1 was going to do CAS, you would have been laughed out of the room," said Lt. Col. Dominic "Beaver" Ross, director of operations for the 337th Test and Evaluations Squadron.
Ross, part of the B-1 community since 2003, was first a weapons system officer for the bomber, then a pilot, before heading the operational testing squadron here.
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He said the first pilots who strapped into the cockpit of the now non-nuclear B-1B never imagined they would be doing close-air support missions over battlegrounds in the Middle East.
Today, "the B-1 [has] dropped more weapons in CAS than any other platform. It's second to none," Ross said during an interview.
Military.com sat down with Global Strike Command officials during a trip to the base and took a ride in the B-1B over training ranges in New Mexico last month.
"Most ground commanders want a B-1 or an A-10 [Thunderbolt II]," Ross said of close mission support.
"We have the sensors. We have the speed, the shows of force. We are so [forward-leaning] in this community. We try to think of ways for the crews and the airplane to do things you would have never thought of doing with it," Ross said.
He continued, "If I'm talking to a guy on the ground and I have my sensor on him ... we can drop weapons seven miles away, or we can drop lower, drop them closer. We're not going to drop them as low as an A-10, but we are going to do shows of force where we're 500 feet overtop of their head."
Ross said weapons testing and evaluation goes hand-in-hand with Dyess' weapons school tactics and procedures that crews are training with right now -- something officials here have dubbed as the "new CAS" or "digital CAS" mission.
It's partially helped by the B-1B's Integrated Battle Station, known as the IBS upgrade, and the Sustainment-Block 16 (SB-16) upgrade, which gave pilots and backseaters -- the offensive and defensive positions in the cockpit -- more situational awareness, with enhanced cockpit displays and data and coordinate sharing.
During Military.com's Dec. 19 flight, the SB-16 system showed enhanced communications and data-sharing techniques, including the military grid reference system and tech displays that enabled pilots and crew to instantaneously send target coordinates, weapons information, altitudes, speeds -- even the aircraft's call sign.
These upgrades and training techniques precede what personnel here anticipate in the near future: returning to the Middle East. Bomber crews have been training for the evolving battlespaces in Iraq and Syria, as well as Afghanistan, according to officials.
"We're very good at it, and we have a lot of tools in the airplane that allow us to be very effective at it," said Maj. Charles "Astro" Kilchrist, chief of training for the 9th Bomb Squadron.
Still, nothing -- neither airmen nor any targeting system -- is foolproof. Crews know and want to take extra precautions.
"What we focus on is … putting our crews in situations that we think are realistic, that will provide this certain level of fidelity and skills they can immediately transfer into a combat situation," Col. Brandon Parker, 7th Bomb Wing commander, said during a roundtable interview.
"We've all been there," he said of the roundtable participants, meaning combat situations in the Middle East. But since the B-1 left Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, in early 2016, the next crew members going back won't be the same airmen.
"A lot of those crew forces going back in, they're a lot younger," Parker said. "So we have to spend some time [training]. Because [we're] not going to have the same level of experience as we had before."
Lessons from Kobani
In September 2014, the fight against the Islamic State in Syria was just beginning. But the 9th Bomb Squadron, deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility at the time, got the call to help drive ISIS fighters out of Kobani, Syria.
It was so memorable, the crew even has a "Stars and Stripes" cover depicting the liberation of Kobani -- which occurred nearly five months later and was signed by everyone who participated in the fight -- hanging in their squadron headquarters.
"It was a massive shift in rules of engagement," said Lt. Col. Erick Lord, the 9th Bomb Squadron commander. While he wasn't present during the bombing runs, he knew from others' accounts that it was different from his previous tours in Afghanistan, which could take four-to-five hours to even authorize and engage a target.
In Kobani, "It was just go. Blow everything up," he said.
It had to do with the fight, in which the enemy was "advancing quickly," Kilchrist added.
"It was an urban environment, so it was a lot of buildings. They were using non-conventional tactics [because] they knew we were overhead. But the [Joint Terminal Attack Controllers] had good ways of gathering intel to find out what their key weaknesses were -- and it had to be quick. We had jets there every single day for 24 hours a day. Along with the F-15E Strike Eagles, call-sign 'Dudes,' " he said.
The F-15s and B-1s would tag each other out, handing off targeting coordinates as they rotated in and out for the days-long watch.
"We were just bombing them back, and back and back ... to the west, and [ISIS] would try to sneak around to the south, and then we would see them, and … it was just a huge battle," Kilchrist said.
For that deployment, roughly 1,700 precision-guided weapons of the 2,025 total used were dropped on Kobani alone, officials here said.
In all, the B-1 deployed the most weapons of any aircraft involved in the anti-ISIS campaign before its departure, according to statistics provided to Air Force Times in 2016. It was responsible for almost 40 percent of the Air Force bombs on Islamic State targets, according to the service's statistics.
By comparison in 2013, “the squadron dropped 93 [weapons] over a six-month period in Afghanistan, so that right there shows you the big difference," Lord said.
And that was the crew's point: The fight can change in an instant.
Lord said, "We'll train to the most stringent [rules of engagement] and then we'll develop training scenarios that walk people down the rabbit hole, that force them to make mistakes" so they can be identified before they're made.
"Because busting ROE will get you sent home," he said.
Changing Landscape, Rules of Engagement
Crews know when they head back to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, it will not be the same environment they saw in 2014 and early 2015.
In a shrinking airspace environment such as Syria, crews say they have ways to self-protect so as not to rely on a fighter escort.
"We have the ability to process and jam signals," Lord said, without going into further detail. The aircraft can also deploy chaff or flares to divert surface-to-air missiles should they launch at the bomber.
But that's not their main concern. The process of how air wars are fought has become so fine-tuned, Lord said, it's surpassed just an Air Tasking Order, or a mission list defined by the air operations center.
"Targeting [today] is not quite the same. [Before], you would often just take off with a loadout. That was composite, and it was a matter of what the persons on the ground needed and what type of effects, what type of targets were developed," he said, referencing both Operation Inherent Resolve and the future fight in Afghanistan.
The timing of the kill chain -- known as F2T2, or find, fix, track, target, engage and assess -- "is so much quicker, is so more rapid that we are inside the adversary's decision matrix, and we can properly put proper effects almost surgically where we need them … without missing opportunities," said Lt. Col. Christopher Wachter, director of operations for the 345th Bomb Squadron here.
That includes minimizing collateral damage with the B-1, which has the largest payload capacity -- 5,000 pounds more than the B-52 Stratofortress -- of both precision-guided and conventional bombs.
"We're always thinking and evolving and changing in order to meet what the adversary puts at us, and then when we employ weapons, we want to do it as quickly, precisely, lethally but also with as minimal impact out there within the space," Wachter said.
Kilchrist referenced Military.com's flight, which practiced a variety of simulated weapons drops.
"Realize that all the platforms that drop these weapons [GBU-54s, GBU-31s] are seeing the exact same thing ," he said. "So a GBU-31 dropped off a B-1 is the same as a GBU-31 dropped off of an F-15, or an F-16, or an A-10. They all have launch acceptability regions, they all have air speeds and altitude restrictions, and they're all GPS-guided weapons."
Kilchrist added, "An A-10 can drop those things just as well as we can. To put in the perspective of, 'Oh, a B-1 is not a CAS platform' [argument], remember that CAS is that mission set. And because of the payload that we have, the speed, the gas, we can stay there for long periods of time. And just unleash."