On May 8th of this year, Boeing was granted a patent that shows a number of potential cannon configurations for legendary supersonic bomber, the B-1B Lancer. The patent’s details range from conformal pods that house turrets to a suspension system that would allow massive cannons to be lowered from the bomber’s payload doors. While the turret placement is different, and even the cannons themselves (ranging from 25mm to 40mm in size), the overall concept is the same: to arm America’s outgoing supersonic bomber with a similar type of firepower already seen in C-130 gunships.
At first glance, the idea seems almost like science fiction. Despite dating back to the 1970s, the B-1B Lancer is America’s only long distance, heavy payload bomber capable of breaching the supersonic barrier and sustaining speeds in excess of Mach 1. It’s folding wings, reminiscent of the F-14 Tomcat of Top Gun fame, may be the only aspect of the legendary “Bone” that betrays its dated origins. There’s no question that the idea of a supersonic gunship screaming across the sky at Mach 1.2 before expanding its wings, reducing its flight speed and raining hate down on enemy positions in a battlefield of the future sounds exciting but just how practical would such a transition be?
First, the pros.
With the B-1B slated for retirement in the coming years, there would need to be a pretty significant reasoning behind keeping the nearly fifty-year-old platform operational beyond its current projected service life, and to be fair, there are aspects of a B-1B gunship that might benefit the American defense infrastructure. Currently, America relies on the AC-130U gunship to provide heavy cannons from an airborne vantage point, but some elements of the air frame limit its strategic value — in particular, how easily targeted the behemoth can be during day time operations.
As a result, the AC-130U is primarily used in support of night-time operations. Although the B-1B is far from a “stealth” aircraft thanks to its traditional tail section and folding wings, it does offer a significantly reduced radar signature when compared to the Spooky gunship, potentially increasing its survivability as a daytime gunship itself.
Further, the maximum attainable speed for the AC-130U is just about 300 miles per hour, whereas the B-1B can sustain speeds of around Mach 1.2 and has an air profile more closely resembling a large fighter. That means the B-1B is faster and more maneuverable than the C-130 based gunships, but may also negatively affect the Bone’s stall speed – or lowest possible speed it can maintain while loitering over a target. In short, the B-1B’s limited radar profile, high top speed and fighter like maneuverability could permit it to offer air support in more aggressively defended airspace, and thanks to its range and high-speed capabilities, deeper into contested air space than the AC-130 could. Further, because of its reduced radar signature and moderately high degree of maneuverability, an argument could be made that the B-1B stands a better chance at surviving anti-air defenses once its limited stealth capabilities stop being as effective.
But then there’s the cons.
On paper, the B-1B costs only about $10,000 per hour more than the AC-130 to operate, which, though significant, doesn’t really convey the massive costs associated with transitioning the B-1B out of bomber service and into a new life as a supersonic gunship. While the AC-130 is slated to continue to serve for years to come, the Lancer program already has a retirement date that’s quickly approaching. The B-1B Lancer, as well as the B-2 Spirit, are both expected to begin phasing out of service as America’s new secretive B-21 Raider begins taking to the skies. By the 2030s, both legacy air frames are expected to find their ways into bone yards in favor of a fleet of advanced B-21s.
That means arming the B-1B as a gunship would require sustaining the platform beyond its expected service life, which would inevitably mean needing a revamp of flight systems. Last year, I had the opportunity tour one of the faculties responsible for making integral components for the B-1B’s propulsion system, and I can attest personally that the Lancer’s age shows in the production of its parts. Low order quantities, extremely strict tolerances, and maintaining the more than 40-year-old equipment required to make Lancer parts makes replacement components incredibly expensive to produce and that would likely only increase as many Lancers were retired from service and the remaining converted gunships represented even lower order quantities.
When you consider the immense cost associated with keeping the B-1B in the air, it’s hard to argue that the role it might fill as a day-time gun ship inside contested air space is a role the Defense Department really needs to fill. In many ways, a B-1B gunship sounds cool, but what it offers in terms of strategic value may not extend much further than that.
So, is it going to happen?
It’s important to bear in mind that the federal government awarding the patent to Boeing doesn’t mean that the company, nor the Pentagon has any interest in pursuing this program — what it really means is only that they could. In the world of defense contracting, patents like these are often collected by corporations as a form of “dibs,” just in case the Pentagon ever comes looking for such a platform.
While highly lucrative (and arguably successful) endeavors like the F-35 and the B-21, which the DOD sees as the future of military aviation, each started out as little more than a sketch on a patent office document, countless other efforts have fizzled out and died after a patent was awarded. It’s possible that Boeing simply wanted the basic methodology for arming bombers with heavy guns patented and their designs could be adjusted to suit any other heavy payload bomber, or it’s possible that this patent, like so many others, may simply sit in a drawer somewhere.
Only time will tell.
Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Patent Office