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DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – President Obama's new military strategy is taking shape here on the sun-seared grasslands of West Texas where B-1 bomber pilots train.
The strategy pivots from missions over the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan to targets on the sea and, though the military doesn't come out directly and say it, in China. "We're going back to the future," says Col. David Been, commander of the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess. "As the balance shifts from almost exclusively Afghanistan right now, we're shifting to the Asia-Pacific region."
After a decade of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — 6,350 Americans killed and more than $1 trillion spent — Obama announced the new strategy in January that looks to counter the rising power of China. The changing role of the B-1 is a prime example of how the Air Force is responding.
Suddenly, the B-1, a plane that once seemed irrelevant after the end of the Cold War, is being repurposed again. First, the B-1 became the workhorse of the air war in Afghanistan. Now, as the Pentagon's strategic vision shifts to Asia, so too is the B-1.
"The B-1's capabilities are particularly well-suited to the vast distances and unique challenges of the Pacific region, and we'll continue to invest in, and rely on, the B-1 in support of the focus on the Pacific directed in the president's new strategic guidance," said Maj. Gen. Michael Holmes, assistant deputy chief of staff for Air Force Operations, Plans and Requirements at the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta highlighted those changes during a series of meetings with Pacific leaders recently.
"One of those principles in our strategy is the ability to be agile, to be quickly deployable, to be flexible, and to be on the cutting edge of technology," Panetta said in Cam Ranh, Vietnam. "And in a region as large as the Asia-Pacific region, agility is going to be extremely important in terms of our ability to be able to move quickly."
The armed services also will have to make do with less, with $480 billion in cuts to projected budgets forecast over the next 10 years. That puts a premium on existing weapons, at least in the near term. The Air Force wants a new bomber, one that is invisible to radar and possibly pilot-less. But that plane wouldn't be ready for combat until well into the next decade.
The B-1's revived fortunes, however, bode well for the communities that depend on the jobs affiliated with the bomber. The Air Force employs 13,000 people to support B-1 operations in three states, with an estimated economic impact just shy of $1 billion, records show. Not only is the bomber based at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, but it is also at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, and there is a maintenance facility in Oklahoma City.
A long road
It's been a long flight for the B-1 to its current role in the new military strategy. Designed in the 1970s to replace the B-52, the B-1 wasn't ready for missions until 1986.
A main feature is its terrain-following radar that allows the plane to fly itself at low altitude to avoid detection by enemies. "It's designed to fly over the pole by itself, hug the ground — you push a button and you let go — whether it's pitch black, a snowstorm, a rainstorm," Been says. "It would hug the ground, go into Russia, drop nuclear bombs and recover on the other side of the planet somewhere. All by itself. Not talking to anybody."
That sounded good in theory. In practice, the debut stank. "It was a painful birth back in the late '80s for the B-1," says Been, who has flown in the B-1 for 3,500 hours, the equivalent of almost five months. "Engine problems, fuel leaks, it couldn't fly real high. Self-protection … a lot of problems with those right when it came out."
Eventually, the Air Force worked most of the bugs out of the plane.
Today it is the workhorse of the air war in Afghanistan, carrying twice as many bombs and missiles as the aging B-52. The B-1 has dropped 60% of weapons in Afghanistan. Its speed, 900 mph at the top end, allows it to streak across the width of Afghanistan in 45 minutes, critical when troops battling insurgents need air support.
"We're killing bad guys there every day," says Capt. Erick Lord, executive officer for the 7th Bomb Wing.
At other times, Lord says, the B-1 flies close to the ground in a show of force that scares Taliban fighters.
Last year, the bomber dropped bombs in Libya in support of the NATO mission that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi. Two B-1s flew non-stop from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, attacked 45 targets with 2,000-pound bombs, landed, refueled, turned around and hit about as many on the way home.
Equipped with a pod packed with cameras and other sensors, the B-1 also provides high-quality video of insurgent activity on the ground. Its vast fuel tanks allow it to circle overhead for hours before it needs refueling.
With the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan scheduled to end in 2014, the Air Force has begun to focus training for action in the Pacific.
"We're shifting from flying over desert environments to over-water ranges," says Lt. Col. George Holland, commander of the Air Force's 337th Test and Evaluation Squadron.
The Air Force, Holland says, is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to outfit the B-1 with a long-range anti-ship missile. The bomber will be able to track ships at sea and launch the missiles from "hundreds of miles" away.
Pentagon budget records also show the B-1 is getting a series of modifications over the next few years to improve its capabilities.
With China becoming bolder and more aggressive in and around its territorial waters, the B-1 may have a role to play in the Pacific, says John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy website. "The South China Sea is the biggest security problem we have today, and it's only going to get worse," Pike says.
China and the Philippines are quarreling over possession of small islands and fishing rights in the sea, and the clashes could escalate. Moreover, critical shipping lanes cross the sea, and it contains oil and natural gas reserves. Pike notes that the Chinese navy recently added an amphibious-assault ship and a hospital ship to its fleet — ships that could be used if the Chinese seek to seize an island.
The Air Force, in a presentation on the bomber's capabilities, shows its range from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. Without refueling, the jet can hit targets across most of the South China Sea with 24 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM). Those weapons, cruise missiles that can change course in midflight, can hit moving targets, such as ships.
China's development of so-called anti-access, area-denial weapons, or long-range missiles that can destroy aircraft carriers or hit forward bases, could negate the U.S. military's advantages. The idea is to keep American military might at bay, operating from farther and farther away.
New training began earlier this year for B-1 fliers to use the stand-off missile in the Pacific, says Capt. Kyle Schlewinsky, assistant director of flying for the 28th Bomb Squadron. "That's the next fight that everybody's worried about," he says. "It's no secret that if you fight the U.S. straight up, you lose."
Part of the Air Force interest in trumpeting the B-1's capability might stem from a desire to emerge from the shadows cast by the Army and Marine Corps, which have done most of the fighting in the last decade, Pike says. "The Air Force would be very eager to bring the B-1 to the table to demonstrate that they are relevant," he says.
Just how relevant is open to question, says Barry Watts, a former fighter pilot and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-partisan military think tank in Washington.
The B-1 lacks the stealth of its more advanced, radar-eluding cousin, the B-2 bomber. Countries with stout air defenses would pose serious threats.
"It's not a stealthy air platform," Watts says. "Penetration of advanced air defenses would be a real problem."
Been, the colonel with decades of experience with the B-1, says its speed, ability to stay aloft for hours and payload of long-range missiles could be critical for missions in the Pacific. "Those could help kick down the doors," he says.