The Air Force is in the early phases of a multi-year technological overhaul and upgrade of its B1-B Lancer long-range bomber fleet which will outfit all 62 aircraft with a wide-ranging suite of new displays, computer technology and avionics, service officials said.
Called Integrated Battle Station, or IBS, the upgrades consist of three separate efforts to install new displays, integrated data links and diagnostic technologies. The service began fielding the first production IBS aircraft in November of last year and plans to finish the entire fleet by 2019.
“This modernization is the most significant upgrade to the B-1 since initial production,” said Maj. Mick Szczukowski, program element monitor, Air Force acquisition. “Concurrent procurement and installation of all three upgrades reduces installation costs, reduces aircraft downtime, and keeps fielded aircraft configurations to a minimum for aircrew training, maintenance, and operational deployment efficiencies.”
The upgrades are intended to preserve the service-life of the 1980s-built B-1 aircraft through 2040, he added.
After being built in the 1980s, the B1-B Lancer has dropped weapons in a wide range of conflicts. After first serving in Operation Desert Fox over Iraq in 1998, the aircraft has performed missions in Operation Allied Force over Kosovo, served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and flown missions over Libya in 2011.
During the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom, eight B-1s dropped nearly 40-percent of the total tonnage delivered by coalition air forces, Air Force officials said. This included roughly 3,900 guided bombs or Joint Direct Attack Munitions, called JDAMs.
The aircraft is 34-feet tall, 146-feet long and has a wingspan of 137 feet. The B-1 weighs roughly 196,000 pounds and can hit speeds greater than 900 mph. Its four General Electric turbofan engines each generate 30,000 pounds of thrust, Air Force officials said.
One analyst said the B-1 has considerably evolved its mission scope since its inception in the 1980s.
“This was originally a nuclear-bomber plane and they have had to do a lot to make it capable as a conventional plane. It was absent from the first Gulf War and then became more adaptive and multi-role,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis at the Teal Group, a Va.-based consultancy.
A key element of the upgrades are what the Air Force calls vertical situation display upgrade or VDSU, an effort to replace existing flight instruments with 8-by-6-inch multifunction color displays at each pilot station, Szczukowski added.
In addition, the VDSU adds a second display at each pilot station to better enable pilots to avoid threats and strike emerging targets while functioning as a back-up display, he said.
The second piece of the upgrade includes fully integrated data link, or FIDL. FIDL provides ethernet to transmit flight and weapon data among aircrew stations and to other off-board receivers via line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight networks, Szczukowski said.
“It adds the capability to share information with command-and-control organizations and other air, land, and sea assets in the battle space,” he said.
The IBS technologies are developed by Boeing and handed over to the Air Force for installation on the airframes at a Boeing facility called the Oklahoma City Maintenance Repair and Overhaul Technology Center.
“Before there was a monochrome monitor and there was also an old analogue tape which monitored airspeed and vertical velocity. Now there are two advanced liquid crystal displays,” said Dan Ruder, B-1 advanced program, Boeing. “This provides new primary flight displays in color. “
FIDL also replaces monochromatic displays at the rear cockpit crew stations with color multifunctional displays, a streamlining move which will help the crew with weapons assignment and delivery. In addition, this will allow the crew to perform rapid airborne retargeting missions using machine-to-machine data transfers, he added.
FIDL also inculdes a beyond-line-of-sight data link integrating with the B-1 avionics system. This enables a ground commander to task a B-1 well outside of the battlespace, Air Force officials said. At the same time, command and control far removed from the battlespace can task or re-task a B-1 that is en-route or already in the battlespace.
The third piece of the IBS upgrade is the addition of memory capacity to the diagnostics data base, Szczukowski explained.
The Air Force lists the price of a B1-B Lancer at $283.1 million in 1998 dollars, and service officials say the fleet-wide IBS upgrades will cost $918 million for procurement and installation and $391 million for research and engineering.
In addition to IBS, the Air Force is also pursuing a handful of additional upgrades to the B-1 bomber to include improvements to its navigation system. Beginning last year, the Air Force began fielding a program called inertial navigation system replacement, or INSR, which improves navigation by replacing two spinning mass gyroscopic inertial navigation system with ring laser gyroscopic systems and a new GPS antenna, Szczukowski added.
The INSR program will cost $88 million in research and $93 million in procurement and installation dollars, he said.
The Air Force has also begun fielding new radar technology for the B-1, replacing the APQ-164 radar and conducting the first major radar modification for the B-1 in 25 years. The effort, which began fielding in 2012, is slated to cost $373 million.
The B-1 is also slated to receive a new attitude indicator, an instrument which provides angle of the aircraft, airspeed and altitude information to the crew. The new system, to field by 2015, will replace three existing instruments with a single integrated instrument, service officials said.
Aboulafia said the B-1 upgrades represent an Air Force effort to expand the mission possibilities for the aircraft.
“There’s so much that needs to be done. It was designed with a long-range capability and supersonic air speed. The B-1 is best described as a work in progress. It has needed to become a multi-role bomber capable of surviving in more advanced threat environments,” he said.