Assigned to the United States Air Force (USAF), Air Combat Command has two operational Bomb Wings (BW) – the 7th BW at Dyess AFB Texas with some 32 B-1Bs and, 1000 miles north, the 28th BW at Ellsworth AFB Rapid City South Dakota with 27 jets. AeroResource’s Mark Forest visits the home of the 28th BW to find out more on their mission role, training and upgrades introduced since visiting with the ‘Bones’ of the 7th BW in 2012.
With around 3,800 personnel currently assigned, the 28th BW is home to two squadrons – the 34th Bomb Squadron (BS) known as the Thunderbirds and the 37th BS known as the Tigers.
Formed as the 34th Aero Squadron (AS) in 1917 with the P-12 biplane, the unit was later equipped with the A-17 and YA-19 in 1936 and, four years later in 1940, it was flying both the B-18 and B-23 bombers. In 1942 aircrew from the 34th flew under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle during the famous Doolittle Raid over Japan in B-25s flying off the deck of the USS Hornet. Throughout the remainder of the Second World War, the 34th BS flew the B-26 before being deactivated in November 1945. Over the coming years, the squadron was activated and deactivated on several occasions and saw action over the skies of Korea with the B-57 and B-66 flying interdiction and close air support missions. The squadron moved on to the B-52 for a short period before finally transitioning over to the B-1 at Ellsworth AFB April 1, 1994. Remaining at Ellsworth for three years, the unit relocated to Mountain Home AFB Idaho before returning back to Ellsworth in September of 2002.
Like the 34th, the 37th BS also began life as an Aero Squadron – the 37th AS – formed prior to the First World War in 1913 before going on to serve in France as part of a Expeditionary force for the duration of the conflict. In 1940, the squadron was assigned to the 17th Bomb Group and later flew B-25s as the 37th BS in the Doolittle Raid alongside the 34th BS. During late 1943, the squadron re-equipped with the B-24 before deploying to England as part of the Eighth Air Force. Stood down after the Second World War, the unit was was reactivated after a hiatus of five years in mid-1950, becoming a B-26 Night Intruder squadron during the Korean War. From 1955 to 1958, the squadron was based at Eglin AFB, Florida working as part of the test and evaluation program for the B-57. From 1977, the 37th BS flew the B-52H and joined forces with the 28th BW at Ellsworth AFB flying the jet for the next five years before taking on the B-1 on the January 1, 1987.
With the first B-1 taking flight in December 1974, the ‘Bone’ as it is known by its pilots (which comes from the literal spelling B-ONE) has been flying for over 40 years – 30 of which operationally with the B-1B variant. Originally designed for use solely as a long-range nuclear weapon delivery platform, the swing-wing bomber was reassigned to a number of more conventional roles during the early nineties.
Able to carry guided and unguided weapons both internally and externally including general purpose bombs, mines, wind-corrected munitions, Joint Direct Attack Munitions, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff missiles and Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions this gives the aircraft a payload of 125,000Ib. Given the wide range of munitions available, the B-1B is a formidable weapons platform with a true global strike capability and can deliver more ordnance than anything else flying within the USAF bomber inventory.
The official mission role of the 28th BW is to ‘Guarantee our Nation’s Expeditionary Combat Power-Anywhere on the Globe’ under the motto ‘… is put bombs on target’ – somewhat fitting for the owners of this low level, hard hitting and lethal strike bomber.
Primary training sorties are flown over the Powder River training complex military operations area (MOA) that spans parts of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. As part of the 28th BW Global Strike mission, B-1Bs will often fly 13,000 plus mile non-stop training missions to Guam in the Philippines to drop ordinance on a near-by situated range. This trains the crews for long-range precision strikes as well as the air-to-air refuelling tasks and long range crew endurance that is associated.
Other major training exercises attended by the B-1Bs from Ellsworth include Red Flag hosted by Nellis AFB, Nevada and Red Flag Alaska that takes place at Eielson AFB. Both of these large-scale multi-national integration exercises train pilots in advanced aerial combat scenarios. Another key element of a Red Flag is the post mission debriefs where force commanders can assess the effectiveness of their aircraft and put lessons learnt from the day’s sorties into future mission planning alongside any required tactic changes. Red Flag is thought to be the closest thing to a real battle that most pilots, navigators and weapons systems officers will ever see.
Green Flag Exercises, also hosted by Nellis AFB along with Fort Irwin, California, is an air-to-surface training exercise which includes joint US and coalition forces. During a typical Green Flag, personnel direct and instruct units across three types of operations – air, space and cyber – in support of combat ground forces. The B-1 missions help support over 3,000 sorties across 6,000 flight hours every year during Green Flags exercises and, during Green Flag 15/07 which ran from April 26 through to May 8, 2015, the 37th BS deployed more than 400 personnel and four jets in support.
The first major upgrade was the Conventional Mission Upgrade Program (CMUP) which came to fruition in 1993. The CMUP took the jet away from its intended nuclear long-range penetration strike role and into a conventional-only weapons role. From 2007, the B1-B fleet started to integrate the Sniper XR targeting pod for target acquisition; the pod being carried on an external hardpoint underneath the fuselage just forward of the the weapons bay. From 2012 to 2019, the entire B-1B fleet is being upgraded with the Integrated Battle Station (IBS) of which part one is the Vertical Situation Display Upgrade (VDSU) that replaces existing flight instruments with a new multi-functional digital colour display for the pilot and co-pilot. In addition, the VDSU adds a second display at each of the crew stations to increase the chance of avoiding threats and strike emerging targets as well as working as a back-up display.
Part two of the IBS upgrade is a Fully Integrated Data Link (FIDL) as part of the Sustainment-Block 16 upgrades, which includes updates to the diagnostic, radar and navigation systems as well as a new MIDS LVT-1 radio bringing the B-1B into the Link-16 network providing ethernet to transmit on board flight and weapon data between the crew stations. The FIDL also now allows a beyond-line-of-sight data link integration with the avionics meaning that any command and control assets not in the battlespace can task any new mission directives in real time. Part three of the IBS upgrade will see an increased memory capacity to the diagnostics database. The IBS major upgrade program will also see the B1-B fleet pass through the Air Force Material Command’s Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex at Tinker AFB where they will also receive a number of smaller upgrades. These include replacing the two spinning gyroscopic inertial navigation system with a ring laser gyroscopic system and new GPS antenna and the fitting of a new SABR-GS Northrop Grumman radar system as part of the Radar Modernization Improvement Program. This provides unprecedented target area detail with full digital maps under all weather conditions replacing the APQ-164 currently in use across the fleet.
With the first IBS upgraded B-1B (86-0122/DY from the 9th BS of the 7th BW at Dyess AFB) completed in September 2013, the fully upgraded B-1B now has an operational life extension until 2040. The 28th BW sent the first of its jets to Tinker AFB on the July 1, 2015 with the upgrades expected to take around nine months to complete.
Operational Deployments and Achievements
Operation Desert Fox 1998: 28th BW B-1Bs were first to fly combat missions over Iraqi airspace striking numerous targets in the country over a four day period.
Operation Allied Force 1999: Five B-1Bs from Ellsworth joined with NATO forces in striking military targets in Kosovo. By the end of the conflict three months later, some 100 combat missions had been flown and almost 1,300 tons of general-purpose bombs had been dropped.
Operation Enduring Freedom 2001: B-1Bs from Mountain Home AFB and the 37th BS joined to form the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron. Along with other units from Ellsworth AFB they forward deployed as the 28th Expeditionary Wing. During their deployment, almost 4,700 units of mixed ordnance were dropped on military targets with a combat mission effectiveness of 95%.
Operation Odyssey Dawn 2011: Launching missions from Ellsworth AFB, B-1Bs took off from the South Dakota base to strike targets in Libya – the first time that B-1Bs had flown combat sorties from the USA to strike a target overseas.
Currently jets from the 37th BS are assigned to the 379th Expeditionary Wing where they are forward deployed to Southwest Asia in support of Operations Freedom’s Sentinel and Inherent Resolve.
On June 29, 2015 – 30 years to the day of the first operational B-1 Lancer touching down at Dyess AFB Texas – the B-1B celebrated three decades of service as one of the most versatile, combat proven warplanes in United States history.
AeroResource would like to thank the public affairs team at Ellsworth AFB, the aircrew and maintainers of the 28th BW, additionally Mark Burden for his assistance throughout the visit.