Air Force Takes Next Step in Efforts to Ready B-1 for Future Hypersonic Missiles

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A B-1B Lancer releases a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile.
A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 419th Flight Test Squadron, 412th Test Wing, releases a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile during an external release demonstration in the skies over Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, Dec. 4, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Ethan Wagner)

Weeks after the U.S. Air Force proved it could mount an advanced stealth cruise missile externally on the B-1B Lancer for the first time, it has taken the next step, test-firing an inert missile from under the B-1's fuselage.

The 419th Flight Test Squadron out of Edwards Air Force Base, California launched a practice round of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, known as the JASSM, from the bomber, according to a news release. The news of the test, conducted at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, Dec. 4, was first reported by Defense News.

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The missile was launched from the external pylon outside the Lancer's internal bomb bay. The pylon typically carries the bomber's "Sniper" targeting pod, a tracking device used for target detection and identification. The bomber is assigned to Edwards' 412th Test Wing, the release said.

Military.com first reported last month that the Air Force conducted an inaugural captive-carry test of the JASSM externally on the B-1, a step forward efforts to develop the B-1 to carry sophisticated ordnance -- like hypersonic missiles -- in the future.

"The Air Force Test Center is enthusiastically teaming with the Air Force Global Strike Command to enable greater flexibility in bomber payloads," said Maj. Gen. Christopher Azzano, Air Force Test Center commander, in the release. "Demonstration of B-1B external carriage reflects the potential to keep weapon systems in the fight with increased combat capability."

In addition to JASSM, the B-1 can carry the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM. A single B-1B can hold up to 24 LRASMs; the Navy missile, which can autonomously locate and track targets while avoiding friendly forces, achieved early operational capability on the bomber in 2018.

Together, the two tests are a proof of concept for the bomber's ability "to carry 24 JASSMs [and or] LRASMs internally with 6 to 12 weapons externally," Lt. Col David Faggard, spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command, said Nov. 24 following the captive-carry demonstration.

The proposed increase means that two bombers would equal three bombers' worth of weapons, he said.

"Arming a limited number of B-1s with more weapons externally could enable Global Strike Command to provide more weapons for geographic combatant commanders while putting fewer aircraft and aircrew in harm's way," Gen. Tim Ray, head of AFGSC, added in Wednesday's news release.

In August 2019, the Air Force proved it could adapt the Lancer to hold more ordnance, a first step toward carrying enhanced weapons payloads. That test, also conducted by the 419th, demonstrated that crews could fasten new racks onto the B-1's external hardpoints as well as reconfigure its internal bomb bays to hold heavier weapons.

To allow for the release of the inert bomb in the most recent test, the pylon and related internal wiring were mechanically altered, said N. Keith Maynard, a special instrumentation flight chief with the 812th Airborne Instrumentation Test Squadron.

High-speed cameras capable of capturing up to 500 frames per second were secured onto the supersonic Lancer in order to better analyze the data and characteristics of the test, he explained.

"The most important product for this specific mission is excellent imagery of the release from multiple angles to not only verify safe separation but to provide information about the weapon itself, like fin deployment," Maynard said.

The external hardpoints on the heavy-payload B-1B were once built to carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles -- a mission the long-range aircraft no longer has. The conversion process to make the B-1 non-nuclear began under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty made in agreement with Russia; the final conversion took place in 2011.

The command reiterated in the release that while using the external pylons reactivates the original design and inherent capability, the change does "not violate the New START agreement."

While experts have recently debated whether a new, physical conversion to the hardpoints themselves violate characteristics within the treaty, the event is still "not [a] secret return to nuclear mission," Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, tweeted Thursday.

"But it would help if [the Air Force] released a legal analysis" to support its claim that it remains within treaty bounds, he added.

Service officials said the demo does not affect the Air Force's request to retire 17 B-1B bombers in 2021, reducing the fleet to just 44 aircraft in order to better sustain the most viable planes.

In the final version of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act released last week, lawmakers stipulated the service can retire some aircraft as long as it maintains 92 primary mission bombers of any kind, including the B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit, Defense News reported.

The service plans to retire the entire B-1 fleet by 2036.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: In First, Air Force Flies B-1 Bomber with Externally Mounted Stealthy Cruise Missile

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