When the public thinks about heavy bombers, they will probably recall images of daylight raids against occupied Europe in the Second World War. Strategic bombing and laying waste to large area targets (i.e. cities) is what comes to mind, not close air support and precision air strikes of carefully calibrated lethality. But this perception is a complete departure from reality; bomber forces deployed to OIF and OEF today have precision targeting capability and robust ISR capabilities; they are employed as CAS and ISR assets, not city-busters.
The U.S. Air Force’s primary heavy bomber, the B-1b (a.k.a. “Bone”, derived from “B-one”) can fly a thirteen hour mission with 50,000 lbs. of munitions. Most fighter aircraft carry a fraction of a B-1’s payload and fuel, so they have to refuel more frequently, not to mention return to base to replenish expended munitions.
The B1-B Lancer has been providing close air support, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to forces since 2006. Here, the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron is charged with executing B-1 operations throughout Southwest Asia.
…When it was first introduced to the Air Force inventory in 1986, the primary mission of the B-1 was to penetrate heavily fortified airspace at high speeds and deliver a substantial payload. The traditional kinetic role of the B-1 has since transitioned into a multi-faceted mission for today’s fight; now it flies close air support missions throughout the U.S. Central Command’s Area of Responsibility, which had been reserved primarily for the fighter platforms.
Air refueling capabilities, in combination with the ability to carry a large amount of fuel, enable the jet to maintain a longer loiter time over the battlefield, Corrigan said. “We can be on one side of the battlefield and fly to the opposite end to provide support if necessary. For fighter type aircraft, an air refueling is usually required.
— Dobrydney, David [SrA, USAF]. “Lancers play many roles in AOR.” 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs, 15 November 2009.
Recently the Bones have been equipped with the Sniper targeting pod, allowing the bomber to act as an ISR asset, providing realtime video and data to ground forces.
During a B-1’s loiter time over the battlefield, when they aren’t providing kinetic support, they are guiding other air assets, said Maj. Craig Winters, 37 EBS weapons system officer. “We can become the communications node with other aircraft such as the [F-15E] Strike Eagle or the A-10 [Thunderbolt], working with their operators to coordinate shows of force.”
When releasing munitions, B-1 crews previously relied on air-to-ground radar and joint tactical air controllers for guidance. Recently, however, B-1’s have been fitted with a Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, which allows crews to view the AOR with greater clarity. With it, “we’re seeing everything that’s happening on the ground and can provide feedback to JTACs and other players on the field,” Corrigan said.
The bomber’s flexibility and innate capabilities—high speed, long loiter time, huge payload—are enormous assets to ground commanders in OEF and OIF. Far from being a Cold War relic, it is an essential part of the force structure today, making meaningful contributions to thes wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For Canadian military-watchers keeping score at home, our air element in-theatre consists of airlifters, light tactical helicopters and medium-lift helicopters. Heavier-hitting close air support for our troops in the AOR comes from those NATO partners who did bother to deploy CAS assets. The B-1B—of which the USAF is the world’s sole operator—entered service in 1986; in contrast, the Canadian Forces’ heavy bombing capability ended definitively in 1948, with the retirement of the Avro Lincoln.
Furthermore, Canada has actually purchased the AMIRS (Sniper XR) pod for its CF-18s, achieving initial operational capability in the spring of 2008; but neither the pods nor the Hornets they are mounted on have been used in the CAS or ISR roles during the current conflict.
Images from AF.mil photo essay: Checking out the B-1B for combat.