Laying ‘Dead Flat’, 1st Image Of Crashed B-1B Bomber Surfaces Online; US To Downsize Lancer Fleet

On January 4, a B-1B bomber went down while trying to land at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. Ellsworth Air Force Base released a statement stating that all four crew members had safely exited the aircraft unharmed.

According to local meteorological sources, the incident happened during bad weather, with below-freezing temperatures and thick fog hampering visibility. First responders in the area reported over the radio that there was an “explosion” followed by an “active fire.”

The reason for the crash could not be ascertained immediately. However, the military enthusiasts were prompt to point towards the icy and foggy weather conditions for the accident, as recently reported by EurAsian Times. During the crash, the crew was returning to its home base after a training mission.

The first images of the crashed bomber were published online a day after the crash. An automated camera in Box Elder, a city just southeast of Ellsworth, captured the pictures of the downed B-1B. KNBN, a local television station primarily associated with NBC, operates the webcam.

Viewed via the webcam, the B-1B is on its belly on a grassy spot at Ellsworth’s northern end, sandwiched between the main taxiway and the base’s runway. Military watchers pointed out that the bomber had sustained severe damage, if not destruction. The massive aircraft was seen crashed on its belly with the entire front nose and fuselage section collapsed and or charred.

Besides the webcam footage, social media users have since been sharing photographs they took at the scene, showing at least one extremely bright flash at the base at the moment of the accident. Some other visuals show a massive fire. The extensive damage has added to the recent debacle faced by the US military aircraft.

The B-1 B’s length is 147 feet (44.8 meters), and its fully extended wingspan is approximately 137 feet (42 meters). At its operating ceiling of 40,000 feet (12,000 meters), the aircraft can accelerate faster than the speed of sound; nevertheless, it often flies at subsonic speed. At Mach 0.9, or 670 miles per hour or 1,080 km/h, the B-1B may descend 200 feet (60 meters) above the ground with its wings completely swept back. 

The aircraft can carry 24 SRAMs or eight air-launched cruise missiles. Additionally, it is capable of carrying 84 conventional bombs weighing 500 pounds (227 kilograms) or 24 nuclear bombs. The B-1B can fly 4,600 miles (7,400 kilometers) without refueling with a missile load of 37,000 pounds (16,800 kilograms).

The aircraft was initially intended to be a nuclear-capable, supersonic bomber with variable-sweep wings. However, since the fleet was transformed into a strictly conventional bomber, it has seen heavy use in the Middle East in the past 20 years. It is well known that the aircraft’s mission-capable rate is low.

Crashed B-1B Lancer (Platform X)

The Ellsworth Air Force Base is close to Rapid City in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is the only other base to host B-1B bombers. The B-1Bs have experienced several disasters recently, particularly engine fire issues.

The base states that the 28th Bomb Wing flies more than twenty B-1s. There are forty-five B-1s in the Air Force’s inventory. The B-1 will eventually be replaced entirely by the first operational B-21 Raider stealth bombers, which are expected to arrive at Ellsworth.

US Air Force To Downsize B-1B Lancer Fleet

To better allocate resources to other priorities and maintain the remaining B-1B aircraft in better flying condition, the force has been reduced from 62 to 45 airframes in recent years.

Additionally, flight envelope limitations have been imposed on the fleet to maximize the lifespan of the swing-wing aircraft until its replacement, the B-21 Raider, is operational in substantial numbers. 

The Raider is expected to be delivered to Ellsworth initially. However, this airframe will likely be replaced to preserve the limited fleet size of B-1Bs, given that 17 relatively new B-1Bs are parked in the boneyard.

According to Air Force budget records, the service will spend less on B-1 and B-2 bombers by the end of the 2020s in favor of the improved B-52 and the new B-21. Media reports indicate that even if Congress decides to keep the B-1 and B-2, there may not be many more years for them to serve due to the nearly complete expenditure drop in the next five years, making it impossible to maintain them credibly into the 2030s.

In recent years, Global Strike Command has stated that it plans to retire the B-1 and B-2, which have had mediocre mission capability rates, and dedicate its limited financial and personnel resources to a two-bomber force, the B-21 and B-52.

The Air Force is requesting US$12.8 million in funds for B-1 procurement in the fiscal year 2024; this amount will decrease to US$3.31 million in 2025, US$4.74 million in 2027, and approximately US$1 million annually in 2027–2028.

The B-1 is described as an aircraft “with an expected service life beyond 2037” in the budgetary justifications, with little clarity. Additionally, the Air Force is building a “digital twin” of the B-1B to investigate novel sustainment technologies created utilizing digital techniques.

B-1B Lancer

Funding includes urgent radio improvements to keep the B-1B from losing “secure line of sight, beyond the line of sight, and anti-jam communication with ground and air forces” due to time-critical modifications and the decommissioning of some satellite systems.

Furthermore, additional advancements in cryptography and general mitigation of Diminishing Manufacturing Sources are underway. It will need “significant hardware and software development and testing” to make other improvements.

The Air Force budget documents did not specify whether those would be the AGM-183 Air-Launch Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), which the Air Force has since stated it will not pursue into production, or the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile being developed by Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

The B-1 will also be equipped with equipment to carry new weapon systems, notably hardware and software for the external carriage of hypersonic weapons.