To The Museum of Over-Priced Junk

We see the future through a glass, darkly.

The F-22 and F-35 program’s future is becoming clear in the fate of the B-1 bomber, which the Air Force has begin to “divest” itself of.

“Divest” is a nice way to say “get rid of for scrap.”


In February, the Air Force announced that it will begin retiring the B-1B Lancer from service by divesting 17 bombers from the fleet of 62.

The divestment is being done to cut costs, streamline modernization and maintenance for other aircraft, and prepare for the introduction of the Air Force’s future B-21 Raider bomber.

Air show attraction: that’s your future

Meanwhile, the horribly kludgy and inefficient, but highly functional B-52 continues to be upgraded and maintained, while some of the air-crews piloting the planes had grandparents that piloted the same aircraft.


With a maximum speed of Mach 1.2, B-1 bombers were originally intended to carry out nuclear strikes on targets deep in the Soviet Union.

Their speed and small radar cross section would enable them to quickly penetrate Soviet airspace and avoid detection by Soviet air defenses and radar, giving them a higher chance of survival than the B-52s.

That’s code for “it was a first-strike weapon.” If you’re launching a retaliatory counter-strike you don’t need to be able to stealthily zoom in across your enemy’s borders: they know you’re coming and both sides’ infrastructure and command/control have been thoroughly scrambled by ballistic missiles. For retaliatory counter-strike you need weapons systems that are hardened and survivable not fast and stealthy. It continually amazes me how many Americans either do not understand this, or pretend not to.

But the Lancer would never fulfill its intended role. The project’s slow development meant that it did not enter service with the Air Force until 1986. In accordance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, the Lancers have been stripped of the ability to carry nuclear weapons. Russian officials inspect them annually to ensure they have not been and cannot be converted back.

That’s a nice way of saying, “darn it, those Russians, they caught us.”

The B-1 was a destabilizing weapons system because the only rational response to the US’ fielding a nuclear first-strike bomber would be to pre-empt it by nuking the forward airbases where it’s stationed, first. The Russians probably pointed out that bit of obviousness when they were negotiating for the B-1 to have its fangs pulled.

What made me laugh bitter laughs about all of this was the Air Force’s apparent plan to have a “B-21 Raider” ready for deployment before most of us are dead of old age. I don’t want to hear about the Air Force’s new plans, I want to hear about how they have changed their program development processes so that the problems that manifested in the B-1, F-22, F-35, and ${classified} all else will not manifest in the new development programs. Someone needs to tell the Air Force “no more fighters or bombers for you, until you show that you’ve learned your lessons.”

I’ve been told by spooky sekrit skwirrels that a lot of Ben Ritch’s book Skunk Works is outright lies, so I generally don’t rely on it, but one of the salient characteristics of the skunk works projects Rich writes about is that they were undertaken by Lockheed at Lockheed’s risk. Lockheed realized that if they could build something like an SR-71 they’d make a lot of money selling SR-71s – because, when the aircraft was complete, they’d own the rights and all the knowledge accumulated while making them. The parallel development approach, with its distributed pork barrel funding, prevents organizational accumulation of knowledge – anywhere, not in the vendor or in the pentagon. So, I wonder what would happen if some visionary came to the Air Force with a fully functional aircraft design? But when I think about that, I realize that Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites already did that with the Project Ares, which the Air Force was too stupid to buy. [stderr] I suspect it simply doesn’t matter: the Air Force does not even know how to buy a good aircraft – which guarantees that they will have a long run of expensive crap, while they keep patching up B-52s and throwing them into the air.


  1. Ketil Tveiten says

    You have to remember that the B-52 was designed and built in the Old Times, when the standard for weapons systems was «does this work?», so of course it still works and is in service. The modern standard of «how can we make the most money over the longest time?» yields different results, but dontcha know it’s ${marketing hype language}, so this must be a good plan!

  2. C Sue says

    As a former secret squirrel, who also had a secret squirrel for a FIL, who actually helped DESIGN AND BUILD the SR-71, I can state that he never worked for Lockheed. Pre-TRW, at North American Aviation. There musta been a LOOOOOOT of subcontracting going on!

  3. lorn says

    Infantry loves the B-1. Fold those wings back and the high dash speed means they get there fast. A good thing when you planned for a walk in the park only to find out the hills surrounding are alive with people who are not happy to see you.

    Then, once there, fold those wings forward and the B-1 can fly slowly to conserve fuel. Staying on station for hours. Angry people out for blood look up and see a B-1 slowly circling way up high and realize that taking on ground troops means getting rained on in a most unpleasant way. This allows the ground pounders to scurry off unmolested to the nearest LZ and GTHOOD.

    The B-1 was never the bomber it could have been. Early on money was diverted from manufacturing the titanium landing gear seen on the blueprints. More money to the B-2. So the existing B-1s have landing gear far heavier than designed because the main components are built out of steel. There are other issues that ended up similarly.

    According to one AF general the B-1s in between status is seen as problematic. It breaks down like this: B-2 – stealth; B-52 – not stealth; B-1 – semi-stealth. Stealth makes other superpowers antsy. So … when you want to worry Russia and China we use B-2s. When we want to bomb low-tech insurgents without worrying R&C we send B-52s. B-1s got lost in the cracks.

    Besides I always thought the B-1 looked really good. I’ve always held that if a designer really cares about his design it will look good. The F-35 seems to be poorly thought out and it looks constipated. The F-15 was well thought out and it looks good. Likewise the F-16.

  4. says

    Jimmy Carter actually cancelled the original Mach 2+ capable B1A. The cost per plane kept increasing, and many observers argued it provided little advantage over the existing B52s. Carter had also been briefed about the stealth bomber under development, and decided the B1A wasn’t worth the money.

    Reagan brought the program back, ,but with some tinkering to make it more effective as a more modern “bomb truck,” resulting in the B1B that actually entered service.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    I saw a B-1 at an airshow once. It took off, and turned away from the crowd. Once the engines were pointing directly at the crowd, it was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. And I’ve been to a Rammstein concert. Dull plane to look at though (although in fairness its competition at that show was a B-2, an F-117, some F-15s and other lovely looking things… and I also guess it wasn’t built for looks. Swing wings on something that big is always impressive though.

    I’m mainly disappointed I never got to see an XB-70 Valkyrie fly. That thing legit looked like something out of Thunderbirds.

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