As part of its mission "reset" for the B-1 fleet, the Air Force is not only making its supersonic bombers more visible with multiple flights around the world, it's also getting back into the habit of having them practice stand-off precision strikes in the Pacific, a dramatic pivot following years of flying close-air support missions in the Middle East.
The "nice thing about the B-1 is it can carry [the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile], and that's perfectly suited for the Pacific theater," Maj. Gen. Jim Dawkins Jr., commander of the Eighth Air Force and the Joint-Global Strike Operations Center at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, said in an interview Tuesday.
"Not only are we resetting the airplane's mission-capability rates and the training done for the aircraft, we're also resetting how we employ the airplane to get more toward great power competition to align with the National Defense Strategy," added Dawkins, who supports the warfighting air component to U.S. Strategic Command, as well as operations within Air Force Global Strike Command.
According to the 2018 NDS, "China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea."
Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson stated that China has become "a pacing threat for the U.S. Air Force because of the pace of their modernization" in the region.
The Pentagon's strategy prioritizes deterring adversaries by denying their use of force in the first place.
That's one reason four bombers from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, have been launching from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, for patrols across the East and South China Seas since May 1, according to Air Force social media posts. The bombers deployed to Andersen after the service suspended its continuous bomber presence mission in the Pacific for the first time in 16 years.
During a simulated strike, crews "will pick a notional target, and then they will do some mission planning and flying through an area that they are able to hold that target at risk, at range," Dawkins said.
Close-air support, the B-1's primary mission in recent years, is a much different skill set than "shooting standoff weapons like JASSM-ER and LRASM," he said, referring to the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile and Joint Air to Surface Stand-Off Missiles-Extended Range.
While Dawkins wouldn't get into specifics of how crews are conducting the practice runs in the Pacific, the non-nuclear B-1s have been spotted recently carrying Joint Air to Surface Stand-Off Missiles.
Photos recently posted on DVIDS, the U.S. military's multimedia distribution website, show Dyess' 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron Aircraft Maintenance Unit weapons crew members loading a JASSM into the belly of a plane. The B-1 is capable of carrying 75,000 pounds -- 5,000 pounds more than the B-52 Stratofortress -- of both precision-guided and conventional bombs.
The JASSM's newer variant, JASSM-ER, has a higher survivability rate -- meaning it's less likely to be detected and shot down -- due to low-observable technology incorporated into the conventional air-to-ground precision-guided missile. It is said to have a range of roughly 600 miles, compared with the 230-mile reach of JASSM, according to The Drive.
The precision-guided, anti-ship standoff missile was first tested on a B-1 in August 2017. A single B-1 can carry up to 24 LRASMs, or the same number of JASSM-ERs. The LRASM missile achieved early operational capability on the bomber in 2018.
The vast expanses of the Pacific are well-suited for training with these kinds of missiles, Dawkins explained. Stateside ranges, which may lack surface waters or enough distance between two points, depending on location, cannot always accommodate the needs of bomber crews training with these long-range weapons.
Also, "[when] we deploy, for instance to Guam, taking off from [the U.S.] and going to the Pacific, it allows us to do some integration with our allies, as well as exercise the command-and-control ... and also allows us to practice our long-duration flights and work with the tankers," he said.
Prior to the Dyess deployment, a B-1 from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, flew a 30-hour round-trip flight to Japan in late April. There, it operated alongside six U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, seven Japan Air Self Defense Force F-2s and eight JASDF F-15s over Draughon Range near Misawa, Pacific Air Forces said in a release.
The flight was part of the Air Force's new unpredictable deployment experiment to test crews' agility when sending heavy aircraft forces around the world, since the need to improve the bombers' deployability rate is also crucial, Dawkins said.
Mission-capability rates refers to how many aircraft are deployable at a given time. The B-1 has been on a slow and steady track to improve its rate -- which hovers around 50% -- after being broken down by back-to-back missions in the desert, officials have said.
The B-1 could become the face of the Pacific for the foreseeable future, Dawkins said.
"We want ... to be the roving linebacker, if you will, particularly in the Pacific," he said, adding the mission could also pave the way for incorporating hypersonic weapons into the bomber's arsenal.
In August, the Air Force proved it can transform the Lancer to hold more ordnance, a first step toward it carrying hypersonic weapons payloads.
Gen. Tim Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, has expressed support for the B-1 as a future hypersonic weapons platform.
"Basically, the configuration we're seeking is external hardpoints that can allow us to add six Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapons [ARRW, pronounced "Arrow"], and then you still have the bomb bay where you can carry the LRASM or the JASSM-ER," Ray told reporters last month. LRASM or JASSM-ER could also be carried externally, he added.
"They're not doing any testing with the hypersonic on the B-1, but that's definitely in the mix," Dawkins said.
If configured with that payload in the future, that would be "quite a bit of air power coming off that airplane, whether it's JASSMs, JASSM-ERs or some combination of those, and hypersonics," he said.