For the very first time, the US Air Force has proven that it has the ability to fly a B-1B Lancer bomber carrying an externally-mounted stealth cruise missile, which the service successfully showed off during a November flight test, it recently confirmed.
The successful captive-carry demonstration occurred on November 20 and involved a B-1B Lancer assigned to the service’s 419th Flight Test Squadron, part of the 412th Test Wing that serves under the Global Power Combined Test Force.
A Tuesday release by the Air Force indicates that the missile attached to the aircraft was an inert AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), and that the demonstration was carried out over Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County, California.
The JASSM was attached to a pylon that normally carries an AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, according to The Drive’s War Zone, which also reported that pylon was attached to one of six external hardpoints fitted on the craft that were originally created to fit “special launch racks.”
Gen. Tim Ray, Air Force Global Strike Command commander, said in a statement accompanying the release that the event was a “major step forward in our global precision fires capability and it is important we pursue these technologies to remain ahead of our competitors.”
The ultimate goal of the initiative is to adapt a “small number of our healthiest B-1s to carry hypersonic weapons,” Ray further explained, noting that renovation would prove to be a “vital bridge between the bomber force we have today, to the force of tomorrow.”
The service has indicated that the continued demonstrations of the project would not affect the branch’s request to retire 17 of its B-1B bombers in 2021, a move which would reduce the fleet to 44 aircraft before the entire fleet is set to retire by 2036.
The next phase in testing is due to include an external weapons release, project lead Agustin Martinez revealed in a statement. It’s unclear at what point officials expect to carry out the test.
An analysis of the interaction between the new weapons system and the B-1B system will be reviewed by a joint team involving the Air Force Test Center, Boeing and the B-1 programming office.
Over the years, the aging B-1 fleet has been plagued by maintenance troubles, with Hyten revealing to lawmakers last August that only seven bombers out of the entire fleet were mission ready as a result of repeated deployments wearing down the aircraft.
The US Air Force grounded the entire fleet in 2018 and in 2019; however, in the months since the August declaration by Hyten, the Lancers’ readiness rate has been considerably improved.