Today, the B-1B Lancer is a key part of the United States bomber force. Its conventional bombloads are simply impressive. It is also very, very fast, capable of dashing at over 900 miles per hour, according to an Air Force fact sheet. It serves alongside the B-52. But 40 years ago, the B-1 was seen as the B-52's replacement.
Three U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52G Stratofortress aircraft from the 2nd Bombardement Wing take off from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. (USAF photo)
Surprised? Don't be. Ever since the 1960 U-2 incident, when an SA-2 Guideline shot down the plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers, the United States Air Force was looking to neutralize these missiles – and the follow-on missiles – often by going higher and faster. This might seem odd, as high-altitude planes could be more easily tracked by radar, but the speed often provides less reaction time.
You see, the B-1B may have been the first iteration of the B-1 to enter service, but it was not the first version to take flight. That distinction goes to the B-1A, and that plane was very different from the Lancer of today.
A B-1B Lancer drops cluster munitions. The B-1B uses radar and inertial navigation equipment enabling aircrews to globally navigate, update mission profiles and target coordinates in-flight, and precision bomb without the need for ground-based navigation aids. (U.S. Air Force photo)
According to aviation historian Joe Baugher, the B-1A took flight in 1974. The Air Force was ready to buy 240 planes when on June 30, 1977, Jimmy Carter cancelled the program. The plane had hit a top speed of Mach 2.22, but the price was ballooning. Carter did call for B-52s to be equipped with the AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile, which would later be an option for the B-1B. The development of the B-2 Spirit was also underway as a black project.
However, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the B-1 got new life. Not as a high-altitude bomber, but as a low-level penetrator, with 100 planes produced, a bit over 40 percent of the original plans. It remains in service today, a powerful complement to the B-52. You can see a video of how the B-1 almost put the B-52 out to retirement.