Rockwell B-1B Lancers: An IDF soldier reflects on Operation Desert Fox

B-1B. Photo: USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III
A B-1B.
Photo: USAF/SSgt. Bennie J. Davis III.

1st October 2015 | Lakeland, Florida. It was December 1998. On the last day of a weekend pass an American volunteering with the Israel Defense Forces’ international unit was strolling back to an army hostel in Jaffa when he heard the deep roar of a large jet aircraft passing slowly overhead. Yonatan gazed up and saw a U.S. Air Force (USAF) Lockheed C-5 Galaxy crossing the Mediterranean coast at low altitude and obviously on final approach to Lod airport. Subconsciously feeling that something was afoot, the man reported back to the facility only to learn nothing. Little did Yonatan know that the next night would mark a milestone for the Rockwell B-1B Lancer (aka ‘Bone’), and little did he know of the Lancers’ roles during his period of service which covered Operation Desert Fox.

Merkava Mk III ‘Baz’ tank.

The day after the end of Yonatan’s leave the predawn darkness was still enveloping an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Southern Command base, which was a major armor and vehicle maintenance center. The concentrations of Merkva III tanks, 2.5 ton trucks and venerable but still useful personnel carriers appeared as indistinct black shapes in the ink-black nighttime. By 0500 hours two Americans, one of whom was Yonatan, were already dressed in IDF fatigues after a 5-hour sleep period. They ducked and weaved through the still damp laundry washed by hand and strung up the prior evening. After successfully transiting the maze of hanging stockings, underwear and various and sundry other items of clothing, they made their way down the staircase to the men’s latrine on the first floor.

C-5 Galaxy. USAF photo 060505-F-0000J-002 by Sue Sapp.

Once there they began shaving. To entertain and inform them during the mundane task a small portable radio was set atop the long, narrow, stainless steel shelf that was below the lengthy mirror. The receiver was tuned to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) World News Service as the two men, one much older who was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the fighting at Guadalcanal in 1942 and about to retire, lathered their faces.

As the shavers listened to the news the voice emanating from London announced that the United States and Great Britain had commenced an intense bombing of Iraq. The duo hurriedly finished their tasks and hustled back up the stairs for they knew it would be an eventful day. It was furthermore obvious that Israel could be drawn into the fighting or suffer hits from incoming Iraqi ballistic missiles (Scuds) armed with explosives or chemical weapons.

Tornado GR1 of XV Sqn RAF at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1987 - D. F. Brown - U.S. photo VIRIN DF-ST-89-04629
Tornado GR1 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Photo: D. F. Brown. U.S. photo VIRIN DF-ST-89-04629.

Over a period of 4 days (Operation Desert Fox) USAF and Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter-bombers and bombers of disparate types that included USAF F-16s and McDonnell Douglas F-15s, U.S. Navy Grumman F-14D Tomcats, Grumman EA-6Bs Prowlers and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets from aircraft carrier USS Carl Vincent, and land-based RAF Panavia Tornado GR1s and GR4s, were engaged in a pummeling of Iraqi military centers and infrastructures.

Hours before the IDF volunteers and regular soldiers had finished their personal grooming regimens, visits to the mess hall, morning inspection, and flag raising the IDF had deployed MIM-104 Patriot anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems (ferried in no doubt via C-5 Galaxies) a B-1B crew was penetrating, according to the Boeing webpage The B-1B Lancer Bomber, “Iraqi air defenses to destroy Republican Guard barracks.”

MIM 104 Patriot missile battery. US Department of Defense imagery
MIM 104 Patriot missile battery.
US Department of Defense imagery.

In fact, although the first B-1 was received by USAF in June 1985 and B-1Bs had been in active service since 1 October 1986, this marked the bombers’ introduction to combat. The Boeing online posting additionally pointed out that, “This debut mission validated the B-1B’s conventional role and its ability to operate in a force package.”

As IDF bases were brought to alert status Israeli Air Force (IAF) General Dynamics F-16A/B Netz (‘Hawk’ in English) and F-16C/D Barak (‘Lightning’ in English) fighter-bombers based on an adjacent base and elsewhere were already taking to the skies as a precautionary defensive measure.

An IAF F-16 Netz. Photo: IAF.

Meanwhile, on the beach at Tel Aviv U.S. Army and Israli Air Force (IAF) operators continued to sit inside Patriot batteries watching their radar screens for incoming Scuds. Seemingly oblivious to the urgency below, Yonatan noticed a lone yellow Grumman G-164 Ag-Cat biplane loudly climbing and banking above surrounding agricultural fields spraying insecticide. Considering the screaming of the F-16s’ turbojet powerplants, the monotonous changing of the radial engine’s pitch was almost surreal. Far away B-1Bs were being readied for ground crews for more missions.

A Grumman Ag Cat.
A Grumman Ag-Cat.

In 1987, before Operation Desert Fox and subsequent usage, Mile Spick wrote on page 457 of the book The Great Book of Modern Warplanes that, “The gestation period of the B-1” was “long and difficult even by modern standards.”

Originally the B-1A was initially developed in the 1970s to be a supersonic replacement for the heavy and aging Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber, which, ironically, remains in service. Four prototypes of the swift B-1A were completed. The B-1’s distinctive swing wings could be extended to full span for takeoff, landing and long-range cruise, and swept back for high-speed penetration of adversary airspace.

However, things did not go smoothly. As Robert Coram states (page 157) in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, the “B-1 bomber, one of the most trouble-plagued aircraft in the Air Force inventory” was “a swing-wing,” and while variable-geometry wings were technological marvels, the requite pivoting mechanism inherently added weight which degraded overall performance.

A B-1A at NMUSAF. Photo: USAF
Photo: USAF.

Flight evaluations commenced in the mid-1970s, but the controversial B-1 program was canceled in 1977 with post-Vietnam era trends toward of disarmament and cost reductions. A prevalent feeling was, as French General Georges Buis was quoted as saying in a Time magazine article (Carter’s Big Decision: Down Goes the B-1, Here Comes the Cruise, 11 July 1977): “The B-1 is a formidable weapon, but not terribly useful. For the price of one bomber, you can have 200 cruise missiles.” Mile Spick wrote the following on page 475 of the book The Great Book of Modern Warplanes: In May 1977 “it was revealed that the unit costs per aircraft would top $100 million. This caused a furor. . . .” It took time to rectify shortcomings and powerful political forces sought to cut the B-1.

Nevertheless, B-1 testing continued until 1981. Spick stated on page 478 that by late 1981 “It was becoming obvious that the United States needed a new long-range multi-role aircraft and that the B-1B was the only contender. . . .” So with the Cold War peaking, the Reagan Administration decided to put the airplane into production as part of their re-armament policy. The expensive B-1, in the form of the improved B-1B Lancer, was thus resurrected.

Mike Spick noted (page 518) a fact: “It is a truism of military aviation that hardware optimized for one function usually ends up doing something else.” The B-1 was transformed, and the B-1B Lancer of today is a generally improved model of the B-1A.

Major changes from the basic B-1A included the addition of additional structures designed to increase the payload capacity by 74,000 pounds, an improved radar system and a reduction of the bombers’ radar cross section to one that approximates that of a small fighter. Additionally, due to an engine inlet redesign the B-1B’s maximum speed was reduced to Mach 1.2 from Mach 2.2. Notably, the Lancer retained the variable geometry wings to boost capabilities. When extended the airfoils increase range and permit the B-1B to operate from shorter airfields and also provide smooth low-level cruise while in the sweptback position. The wings also incorporate lift-enhancement mechanisms that enable fully-loaded reduced takeoff rolls; these include segmented full-span leading-edge slats and six- segmented trailing-edge Fowler-type flaps. Wing minimum sweep is 15 degrees and maximum sweep is 67.5 degrees.

A B-1B Lancer performs a low-level fly-by. Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rebeca M. Luquin
A B-1B Lancer performs a low-level fly-by.
Photo: USAF/Senior Airman Rebeca M. Luquin.

The initial Lancer first flew in October 1984. Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, received the first aircraft for USAF in June 1985, and initial operational capability was achieved on 1 October 1986. The last B-1B was delivered to USAF on 2 May 1988.

Robert S. Dudney and Walter J. Boyne, writing in an Air Force Magazine (September 2015, page 116) ‘Airpower Classics’ piece, summarize the Lancers’ legacy: “Designed strictly for nuclear war, the B-1 in the 1990s became something different — a highly effective conventional bomber.”

To date Lancers have set at least 60 records for speed, payload, range, and time of climb. In fact, as the Air Force Magazine article indicates, the B-1 “boasts the largest weapons payload of any U.S. aircraft” and “stands alone as the only variable-sweep aircraft in U.S. service.”

During 1999’s Operation Allied Force (over Serbia), Lancers delivered more than 20% of the total ordnance on targets while flying under 2% of the combat sorties. Operation Enduring Freedom (circa 2001) saw eight Lancers delivering nearly 40% of the total tonnage dropped by Allied coalition air forces within the first six months of operations. B-1Bs have also flown against Libya in 2011 and most recently the planes bombed Islamic State fighters.

Yonatan had seen a B-1B at what was formerly known as the U.S. Air Force Museum (now designated the ‘National Museum of the U.S. Air Force’) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. However, it was not until a few years afterward that, while on a business trip in South Dakota, he saw B-1Bs flying in skies near Ellsworth Air Force Base. At the sight of the big birds his mind raced back to the events of December 1998.

Whether the costly B-1 development period was in the end worthwhile will, as indicated by Mike Spick (page 459) in the 1987 The Great Book of Modern Warplanes, “only be known in 40 or 50 years. . . .” Forty years have now passed since B-1Bs entered USAF inventory. Whether or not the expenditures allocated to B-1 development and acquisition were an efficient or prudent utilization of taxpayer expenditures, Yonatan, for one, was thankful for the planes’ existence. He smiled and silently thanked the Bone crews and their B-1B mounts for indirectly protecting him, his IDF colleagues and Israel.
The author (John T. Stemple) thanks Yonatan for providing his unique account of ancillary events surrounding Operation Desert Fox.

Suggested Viewings

B-1 Lancer Bomber- Tour and Demonstration

B-1B Lancer Bomber

Great Planes Rockwell B-1B Lancer

Desert Fox – Bombs on Baghdad, Iraq – 1998

Desert Fox – Bombing Targets Iraq – (Pentagon released video)

Sources and Suggested Readings

20 years of lethality: Ellsworth celebrates B-1’s history

Air Force Magazine. Airpower Classics: B-1. (September 2015) p. 116.

B-1 bomber makes historic combat debut during Operation Desert Fox


B-1B Lancer

Boeing B-1B Lancer

Bombing of Iraq (1998)

“Carter’s Big Decision: Down Goes the B-1, Here Comes the Cruise.” Time, 11 July 1977.

Coram, Robert. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002.

Fitzsimons, Bernard, ed. The Great Book of Modern Warplanes. New York: Portland House, 1987.

MIM-104 Patriot

Operation Desert Fox

Operation Desert Fox

Operation Desert Fox

The B-1 Lancer Bomber

The Rockwell B-1