High above the battleground of Ramadi, Iraq, B-1B Lancer bombers circle like vultures, waiting for targeting information and using their own keen eyes to locate potential enemies to destroy. It is just another reminder of how a bomber that has had a tough time finding its identity has turned into an arsenal ship of choice for the murky terror wars of the new millennium.
“We’ve got B-1s in this fight, and when we find obstacles that we know we can hit, we’ll strike them from the air as well to try and disable them,” Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said on CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday.
He said [the B-1B] was being used due to its long loiter time, its ability to hold lots of munitions and [its] “extraordinary precision.” The B-1 is able to hold 84 500lb general-purpose bombs, and loiter up to 10 hours without a single refueling.
“B-1s are evolving into a very effective close air support platform,” he said.
In addition, he said they are “much less” vulnerable than the A-10 attack jets, which were employed in Iraq and Afghanistan to support ground troops in battle.
A-10s are not being used in the offensive at the moment, he said, but it’s not clear why.
Think of the bomber as a flying stockpile of precision guided munitions, able to send down death from above at a moments notice. The B-1 was once intended to be a high-speed strategic bomber (B-1A), then evolving to a low-altitude penetrating nuclear bomber and cruise missile carrier (B-1B). After the Cold War ended the B-1B fleet was stripped of its nuclear mission and it became a very expensive conventional bomber, which seemed to always be close to the chopping block.
The big swing-wing war wagon finally found its groove during the Global War on Terror. What was once supposed to take out Soviet strategic targets at the start of WWIII is now fighting men living in mud huts and toting AK-47s. It is a bizarre change in mission, but it works.
The B-1B has a few things fighters don’t: lots and lots of fuel, three cavernous weapons bays, and four crew members to take part in the fight. During the mid-2000s, the simple addition of a fighter jet’s targeting pod to the bomber made it a fairly flexible asset for commanders to deploy, able to linger for hours at a time while having deep stocks of weapons to deploy with great precision. Targeting pod technology had also evolved enough to give the B-1’s crews a decent picture of what they are striking even at medium altitude, outside the range of shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles. It was the combination of these two technologies that resulted in something much more than their individual parts.
For many close air support missions, the platform does not matter as much as the weapon does, and persistence has a value all its own. As such, the B-1B has become a go-to asset when it comes to providing close air support (CAS), especially over disputed territory. This is not to say that it can outright replace aircraft like the A-10 or other tactical aircraft that feature a cannon and rockets, which can build-up awareness of the tactical situation faster than a bomber loitering at 20,000 feet could ever do in many cases.
Yet in an urban battle like in Ramadi, Iraq, the B-1’s ability to loiter for long periods may give its crews a situational awareness advantage over tactical jets, at least the fast, swept-wing type that are constantly in need of aerial refueling. The B-1 crew can build a picture of the battle below naturally, benefiting from the extensive amount of time on station.
Still, the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod’s soda-straw like field of vision makes wide area surveillance nearly impossible. Numerous other assets, especially unmanned aircraft, can help with this by scouting targets for the B-1B, as can forward air controllers on the ground, also known as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (or JTACs).
It is not clear as to what extent the U.S. has JTACSs on the ground in the battle for the city of Ramadi. If they are there, they are likely outside the city and using Iraqi fighters and aforementioned air assets inside and over the city to be their “eyes” when it comes to coordinating airstrikes.
Still, the B-1 has not been without controversy when it comes to its relatively new close air support mission. The aircraft has been maligned for hitting friendly forces and unintended targets, with opponents of its use in a close air support role saying it is due to being so removed form the actual battle, but these statements are murky at best. There are always capability trade-offs with any weapon system, and it could be argued that the B-1’s persistence over the battlefield saves more lives than it has unintentional taken. Additionally, friendly fire statistics often don’t tell the whole picture, are incomplete, or are “cooked” to support a political outcome.
Although many would like to make the B-1’s use in Ramadi as context for inflaming the debate over the fate of the A-10 Warthog, which will live to fight on for the near future, we must remember that many of the decisions of what assets are used and where are driven by multiple factors, including politics.
In the video below, a B-1 can be seen streaking over Ramadi:
The A-10 can also bomb from medium altitude and carries the same targeting pod and many of the same weapons as the B-1. Yet the Warthog is most effective down-low over the enemy. It is also a proven force to be reckoned with when supporting troops in urban environments, hitting sniper positions in buildings and other targets a B-1 could never hit. Still, the debate should never be about the B-1 versus the A-10, they complement each other and are both valuable assets for their own unique abilities.
The A-10 could hit buildings at oblique angles and kill vehicles in streets without destroying nearby buildings during Operation Iraqi Freedom:
The Obama Administration have kept extremely tight rules of engagement in Iraq and Syria, and the political liability of losing a pilot is surely a major factor. As such, even though the A-10 may be the best aircraft for job in a strict military sense, keeping aircrews up at high altitudes in the B-1B and using unmanned aircraft at lower attitudes eliminates much of this risk. Yet it is also a reminder of how the White House is holding back in its anti-ISIS efforts and sees it as a highly limited conflict.
As for the A-10’s vulnerability to anti-aircraft attacks, the jet was built to absorb such attacks and keep flying, as it has done before in combat many times.
In the end, the B-1 was chosen for both political and military reasons to lend a hand over Ramadi. As such, its use there is not an indictment of any other weapons system. If American troops were fighting on the ground in Ramadi it is highly doubtful other assets, especially the A-10, would not have been brought in as well.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
Photo via Author/Foxtrot Alpha