A Tale of Two Bombers

July 1, 2006

When President Reagan took office in early 1981, he came face to face with a huge bomber question. Should he resurrect the long-dormant B-1 to quickly boost US striking power? Or should he bypass the B-1 and invest those billions of dollars in the revolutionary but far more distant B-2 stealth bomber

It was a major dilemma, and Reagan solved it in a classic, Reaganesque way: He bought both.

That was 25 years ago. Reagan’s decision, announced in October 1981, marked the close of a difficult, five-year ordeal in which USAF’s bomber modernization campaign was twisted into knots, untwisted, and twisted again.

In a sense, the tale of the two bombers actually began two decades before, in 1962. The Air Force in that year took delivery of its last B-52 bomber with no follow-up in sight. The service wanted the high-flying B-70, but the Kennedy Administration doubted its utility and canceled it.

As a result, USAF in the same year initiated research and development work on a new low-altitude penetrating bomber, which was given the name Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft, or AMSA. North American Rockwell won the contract.

Things moved slowly, however. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, no friend of the manned penetrating bomber, decided in 1966 to delay AMSA development, declaring that “a new advanced strategic aircraft does not at this time appear justified.”

The Nixon Administration revived AMSA, however, and the support continued after the August 1974 resignation of Nixon and his replacement by Gerald R. Ford. On Oct. 26, 1974, Rockwell rolled out the first aircraft—now known as the B-1A bomber—and staged a first flight two months later. Testing continued into 1975, with a go-no go production decision set for November 1976.

Bull’s Eye on the B-1

It was in 1976—a tumultuous Presidential election year—that the B-1 bomber program began to unravel.

As the production decision approached, the B-1’s critics stepped up their complaints, turning it into a subject of major political debate. The Brookings Institution in early 1976, for instance, published Modernizing the Strategic Bomber Force: Why and How. In this critical book, authors Alton H. Quanbeck and Archie L. Wood urged the Pentagon to scrap the penetrating B-1 and save up to $15 billion by building a different kind of standoff, cruise-missile-firing bomber.

Fierce opposition to B-1 production began to take hold in Washington. Congress wavered on making a funding decision, pending a postelection Pentagon decision.

Meanwhile, the year’s three most significant Presidential contenders stoked the controversy, each in his own way.

Reagan, challenging a sitting President for the Republican nomination, contended that the Ford Administration had allowed the United States to fall behind the Soviet Union in military power, particularly in strategic airpower.

Ford, at least in part in response to the Reagan’s stark criticisms, pledged to build the B-1 in numbers sufficient “to keep our strategic airpower strong in the future.”

Democrat Jimmy Carter, reflecting his own party’s post-Vietnam skepticism of military power, called the B-1 a wasteful and unnecessary program and pledged to oppose it, if elected.

When Carter prevailed in the November election, the B-1 program entered a new and highly uncertain phase. Ford, departing the White House in January 1977, left behind a long-range budget that funded 244 B-1s, but Ford’s over-the-shoulder bomber plan was of little consequence. Everyone knew the actual decision would be made by the new Administration.

The more-dovish Carter took office holding strong views about national defense generally and manned penetrating bombers in particular. The new President believed the Soviet Union would react favorably if Washington unilaterally constrained its strategic nuclear programs.

Carter, through Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, instructed the Pentagon to study the feasibility of reducing the US strategic arsenal. The Democrat believed he should slow down or stop programs that could derail superpower arms control.

Most observers expected Carter to cancel the B-1, and, on June 30, 1977, he did just that. In explanation, he called it “a very expensive weapon” that was “not now necessary” because of the “recent evolution of the cruise missile.” Despite the efforts of Air Force and some Congressional leaders, Carter could not be made to see the value of a penetrating bomber.

Carter’s moves were controversial because, at the time, the Soviet Union maintained a force of about 200 land divisions, some 1,500 ICBMs, 900 submarine-launched missiles, 700 long-range bombers, 8,400 tactical aircraft, and a rugged, integrated air defense system. Conservative critics were outraged.

Brown’s Marker

Brown, Carter’s Pentagon chief (and a former Secretary of the Air Force), made it clear that the US had to maintain “essential equivalence” with Soviet strategic power. He insisted, as had all of his predecessors, that American strategic capability could not be seen as inferior to that of the Soviet Union.

At least in part because of Brown’s views, Carter moved to offset the loss of the manned bomber with acquisition of a new nuclear-tipped Air Launched Cruise Missile. The Air Force had in 1974 contracted with Boeing to develop the AGM-86A. However, the Pentagon continued to flight-test the four B-1A prototypes as insurance against the day when the US might need to build them.

A handful of officials were aware of another factor in the bomber equation, one that would not be publicly known for several years to come. Carter, after his election, had been told of the Air Force’s supersecret Advanced Technology Bomber project, which in time would lead to the operational B-2 stealth aircraft that would be “invisible” to radar. It was an intriguing idea, but Brown always held that the prospect of acquiring the B-2 was not a factor in Carter’s cancellation of the B-1.

For the Air Force, the B-1 decision was a blow. USAF was still suffering the effects of the cancellation of the B-70. Now the second attempt to replace the B-52 had fizzled. For all that, the Air Force, led by its Chief of Staff, Gen. David C. Jones, acquiesced in Carter’s decision.

Fast forward three years, to 1980.

By 1980, adverse political pressure had forced Carter to forgo many of his weapon-cancellation plans. The Georgia Democrat was being harshly criticized on foreign affairs and defense issues, the result of his numerous U-turns and gaffes in dealing with national security.

Carter’s military reputation hit bottom as a result of the April 24, 1980 Desert One fiasco—the failed US military attempt to rescue US hostages held in Iran. The ill-conceived and micromanaged mission ended in disaster in the Iranian desert, where eight US troops died in a fiery refueling mishap. (See “Desert One,” January 1999, p. 60.)

Desert One intensified the campaign rhetoric. Soon, the President and his advisors began to worry that his prospects for re-election might well hinge on success in dispelling his widespread image of weakness.

Carter was squared off against the staunchly pro-defense Reagan, and the political climate had changed in dramatic ways in the Carter years. Americans in 1976 may have been caught in the post-Vietnam doldrums. In 1980, they were alarmed by negative international developments. These included the fall of the Shah of Iran, the hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the establishment of a Marxist regime in Nicaragua, a buildup of large, superaccurate Soviet ICBMs, and other signs of a deteriorating US position.

Now, the shadow of the 1977 B-1 cancellation hung over Carter, serving as a symbol of Presidential weakness. Moreover, the bomber issue flared when a hawkish Congress appropriated funding for a new long-range combat aircraft. The legislation directed DOD to select a candidate aircraft by March 15, 1981 and to have it in production by 1987.

The Stealth Furor

It was at this delicate moment—in late summer of 1980—that word about the previously deep-black stealth aircraft project was leaked to the press. Snippets of information dribbled into print on several different occasions but without overly dramatic effect.

What came next, however, threw gasoline on the fire.

On Aug. 22, 1980, top DOD officials went public with explicit confirmation of the stealth aircraft program. Brown, at a nationally televised Pentagon briefing, maintained, “Stealth technology enables the United States to build manned and unmanned aircraft that cannot be successfully intercepted with existing air defense systems.” He went on to say, “We have demonstrated to our satisfaction that the technology works.”

The revelations created a political uproar. First, Carter critics charged—almost certainly erroneously—that the Pentagon was handing out national security secrets simply to help Carter fend off Reagan’s charges that he had allowed the nation’s defenses to deteriorate. The initial leaks occurred well before Brown’s news conference and seem to have originated in the White House, not the Pentagon.

Still, the Pentagon found itself under attack. The Washington Post’s longtime defense writer, George C. Wilson, took up the cry in a Sept. 8, 1980 article, “The Risk in Politicizing the Pentagon.” Wilson claimed, “Willingly or unwillingly, rightly or wrongly, Defense Secretary Harold Brown has now politicized himself and the Pentagon more than any of his predecessors. And there is considerable risk that any short-term political gains Brown has made for candidate Jimmy Carter will be far outweighed by the long-term losses, not only to President Carter but to the whole process of arriving at rational decisions in the all-important field of national security.”

Brown, one of the few Carter officials to command the respect of hawks in Congress, turned aside such charges. He said that a growing number of individuals were being informed of the stealth effort and that knowledge of its existence was pertinent to Congressional debate about the future bomber fleet.

Reagan’s response was harsh. At a Sept. 4 political rally in Florida, Reagan blasted Carter, claiming that Washington leaks and comments had dealt a “grievous blow” to US security by giving Moscow “a 10-year head start” on finding a way to counter stealth. Worse, he claimed that Brown personally had “breached one of this nation’s most closely held military secrets in a transparent effort to divert attention from the Administration’s dismal defense record.”

“Reckless Distortions”

Brown, a world-renowned physicist, retorted, “As a scientist, I am offended by … Reagan’s cavalier attitude toward the facts. As a public official, I’m indignant at his reckless distortions.” He added that there had been no disclosure of secret data that could compromise the stealth project.

The stealth revelation and political infighting had the curious effect of creating new labels for the political parties. The Democratic Party temporarily became the pro-stealth (and, by extension, anti-B-1) group, while the Republicans were seen as the pro-B-1 (and, by extension, anti-stealth) party.

When Reagan buried Carter in an electoral landslide, the bomber question entered its final phase.

Reagan and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger came to power in January 1981 with a new defense plan. The two formulated and directed a defense buildup of considerable scope and magnitude, anticipating that the overstretched Soviet Union would have a hard time keeping pace.

To fulfill a campaign promise and establish credibility, Reagan needed to support the B-1. Yet the issue quickly became complicated. As a result of the 1980 campaign, the B-2 had moved very much into the picture. In the same campaign, the B-1 had sustained significant political damage.

Reagan no longer could simply be for a new bomber. He had to decide which bomber to be for.

Of the two, the B-1 posed the most immediate political problems. Because it was ready for production, going forward with it would require billions of dollars in the short term. On the political front, the opposition was intense, almost fanatic.

Some had serious questions about the B-1’s combat capability, given years of delay in its development. Harold Brown later put the situation this way: “In 1977, the B-1 decision was a close call; by 1981, the call wasn’t close at all.”

Obviously, Reagan officials disagreed with Brown’s assessment, but Weinberger wouldn’t rubber-stamp the B-1. He was not convinced that the Lancer was, all things considered, the superior choice.

In working through the bomber muddle, Weinberger leaned heavily on selected advisors. Interestingly, these included Brown himself. He and other B-2 advocates argued that the Soviet Union’s ever-more-elaborate and effective integrated air defense system made stealth imperative, if the US wanted to maintain a force of manned, penetrating bombers.

Without stealth, some said, the Kremlin might believe it could cripple the US strategic force in a disarming first strike and then block any US retaliation by a second-strike bomber fleet.

B-2, or Not B-2

Weinberger worried that the cost of the B-1 could not be justified, given its relatively limited period of utility against Soviet air defenses. He was intrigued by the stealth bomber, but did not believe it could be produced within a reasonable period or at the price advertised by its backers.

Of the two aircraft, the stealth bomber had the strongest backing of Weinberger’s scientific advisors. However, Weinberger wondered about the stringent requirements needed for successful stealth operations. The bomber not only had to evade radar but it also required a very low infrared signature and needed to carry an extraordinarily sophisticated electronic suite. The goal was an airplane able to carry out missions without fighter escort.

The Air Force leadership, though well aware of the B-1’s shortcomings, weighed in on its behalf. Gen. Lew Allen Jr., the Chief of Staff, declared that the long-delayed bomber offered the US the best chance to signal America’s determination to swiftly restore the strategic nuclear balance.

“The B-1,” said Allen, “offers a way of doing that which is credible and early and which will be noticed by the Soviet Union in a very major way.”

For six months, Weinberger reviewed bomber presentations. Finally, Reagan made a key but still partial move: He decided to restart the B-1 program. That still left a big question about the B-2, though. Would the US press ahead with it or not

The answer was produced in the context of Reagan’s deliberations on broad strategic modernization, details of which were made public in early October 1981. The comprehensive $180 billion plan announced that the Pentagon would prepare to field not just 100 B-1Bs but also 132 stealth bombers.

In the minds of many analysts, the two-bomber program formed the centerpiece of the Reagan rearmament.

The B-1B was a significant departure from the earlier version of the aircraft. Externally similar to its predecessor, the B-model had a different operational concept to help the aircraft avoid some major penetration problems. Addition of radar absorbing material and slight design alterations produced a radar cross section 10 times smaller than that of the original B-1A.

The B-1B made its first flight in October 1984, and the first operational aircraft arrived at Dyess AFB, Tex., almost 30 years to the day after the first operational B-52 had been accepted at its first operating location. The B-1B reached operational capability on Oct. 1, 1986. The 100th and final B-1B was delivered on May 2, 1988.

It is fair to say that the B-1B was rushed into service before testing was complete, and, as a result, it evidenced more than its share of teething problems. There were frequent in-flight engine failures, fuel leaks, and failure of its electronic defensive systems. In its first six years of operation, the B-1B suffered three crashes and seven mishaps.

The B-1B gained a reputation of being accident-prone. However, the reality is that its track record compares favorably with that of other, far less sophisticated bombers. In the first six years of B-47 operations, for example, the Air Force lost 176 of them—nine percent of the total B-47 fleet. The first six years of B-52 operations resulted in the loss of 27 aircraft, or five percent of the total B-52 fleet. The B-1B figure was three percent.

In late October 1981, Northrop was awarded a contract for six flying stealth bombers and two static test airframes. An option for a further 127 bombers was included in the contract. The B-2 was developed under strict secrecy, and the first was not rolled out for public inspection until November 1988. The bomber made its first flight on July 17, 1989.

The demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the evaporation of the Cold War brought quick and major cutbacks in B-2 orders, however. Only 21 were ever produced.

The first B-2A, Spirit of Missouri, arrived at Whiteman AFB, Mo., on Dec. 17, 1993—90 years to the day after the historic flight of the Wright brothers flyer at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Stealth bombers first engaged in combat on March 24, 1999 in Operation Allied Force over Serbia. The B-2 later fought in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, flying record missions from the continental United States.

The B-1B has since been converted to conventional-only operations and turned in valuable service during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, where the bomber was lauded for its ability to fly extended missions with a huge and diverse weapons load. (See “The Long Reach of the Heavy Bombers,” November 2003, p. 24.)

With his two-bomber decision, Reagan brought new life to America’s aerospace complex, resulting in advances in computers, software, composite materials, and precision guided munitions. These platforms and systems, along with the ageless B-52, provide the Air Force’s unsurpassed long-range combat capabilities.

Walter J. Boyne is a contributing editor for Air Force Magazine. He is a former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., a retired Air Force colonel, and author. He has written more than 400 articles about aviation topics and 40 books. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Ride of the Valkyrie,” appeared in the June issue.