INDIAN SPRINGS AIR FORCE AUXILIARY FIELD, Nev. – A B-1 Lancer performs a fly-by during a firepower demonstration here recently. The bomber is from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Robert W. Valenca)

President Nixon’s entry into the White House in early 1969 resulted in a new administration far more sympathetic to strategic bomber development. Melvin Laird, the new Secretary of Defense, drastically cut back procurement of the FB- 111, the bomber version of General Dynamics’ swing-wing aircraft, and accelerated AMSA study efforts. Before the end of the year, a new RFP went out to the three AMSA contractors plus Lockheed. In June 1970, the Air Force announced the selection of Rockwell to develop the new bomber, now designated the B-1. According to the official Air Force history, the Rockwell submission won because of “superior technical proposals, as well as lower cost estimates.” (Knaack, 1988, p. 581.) In a stark contrast to their reaction to the outcome of the TFX/F-111 competition, Boeing officials reportedly recognized that the Rockwell design was clearly more responsive to Air Force requirements than their company’s submission (Serling, 1992, p. 202).

Boeing’s poor showing on the B-1 competition combined with the experience of the commercial SST competition from the mid-1960s may provide additional interesting insights into the issues of supersonic R&D experience and the relationship between bombers and commercial transports. As far back as 1957, Boeing had begun investigating commercial supersonic transport (SST) concepts. Early in the Kennedy administration, the Federal Aviation Administration had begun pressing for a government-supported R&D program for an SST. The Air Force had opposed this effort, because it feared that such a program could threaten the XB-70 program, but Congress approved a government-funded program early in the Johnson administration. The major competitors were North American, Boeing, Lockheed, and Douglas. Douglas soon withdrew from the competition, and surprisingly, North American was eliminated later. According to the industry press, the Lockheed design was heavily favored to win. This was in part because the Boeing design proposed a swing wing, which most industry observers-as well as the other three competing prime contractors- believed would be too heavy and too complex and would cause configuration problems for any future SST. The purpose of the swing wing was to permit slower landings speeds to reduce noise. Like North American, Lockheed had proposed a delta-wing design that was not dissimilar to that of the XB-70.

To the great surprise of most industry observers, Boeing won the competition in December 1966. The airlines simply had more confidence in the Seattle company and liked the low-noise feature. The problem was that Boeing had proposed a swing-wing design concept “that simply was beyond the state of the art.” (Serling, 1992, p. 273.) As Boeing engineers launched into detailed design development, they encountered more and more problems. Eventually, the Seattle firm dropped the swing-wing design and adopted a delta-wing con- figuration like its competitors. But as time passed, mounting environmental objections to SST development and cost-growth problems fatally undermined the program. Congress ended funding in May 1971, just as Boeing was about to begin cutting metal for the first prototype.

The SST program is interesting because it appears to illustrate both the differences between bomber and commercial aircraft development and the importance of experience. North American was clearly the most experienced developer of large military supersonic aircraft. But few airlines or other officials believed it would be the best choice to develop a commercial airliner. As the premier developer of commercial transports, Boeing was handed the job. Yet its lack of experience in the design and development of supersonic aircraft-particularly large ones-led it to promise a technological solution that was impractical and beyond the state of the art. North American’s B-1 design proposal had many advanced and novel features and was intended to produce a strategic bomber with performance capabilities that far surpassed those of the B-52. Yet the El Segundo firm had a strong experience base in bombers and supersonic fighters on which to build and did not need to worry about the commercial requirements that drive civilian transport development. Equipped with VG wings, variable inlets, and GE F100 turbofans with afterburners providing a very-high thrust-to-weight ratio, the B-1 would be able to take off from short runways, fly out at supersonic speeds, cruise at high altitude at over Mach 2, and approach enemy targets at very low levels at near-supersonic speeds. Nonetheless, the basic B-1 airframe-engine combination could not be considered groundbreaking in the same sense as the B-58 and XB-70, in that it did not push out the boundaries of aerodynamic or engineering knowledge. Many of its design features, such as swing wings, variable inlets, and blended-body wing design, had been incorporated on other aircraft.

The importance of related R&D experience and the close relationship between fighter and bomber R&D continued on the B-1. Rockwell clearly drew heavily on its experience from the XB-70 and other earlier programs. The variable air inlet design and the under-wing engine configuration and pods were patterned after those developed for the XB-70 effort. (Jones, 1980, p. 239.) The low-altitude ride- control system was also derived from the same aircraft. (Godfrey, 1970, p. 53, and 1975, p. 62.) The B-1’s blended-body wing configuration owed much to the extensive design work and wind-tunnel testing Rockwell had conducted to develop the losing advanced fighter design it submitted for the F-X (F-15) competition in the late 1960s (Gunston, 1993, p. 270.)

The greatest technological challenges facing the B-1 program, how- ever, would come from avionics development and integration. The early 1970s witnessed the beginnings of an explosion in computer, sensor, radar, and other electronics technologies. Electronics took the place of aerodynamics and engines as the area of most rapid technological advance. Sophisticated sensors, avionics, and other major electronic subsystems, such as automatic terrain-following radar and integrated electronic warfare suites, would be critical for the effectiveness and survivability of the B-1. The technical challenges and complexity of developing and integrating the necessary avionics would be great. Avionics costs would grow to nearly half the R&D costs of modern combat aircraft.

Recognizing the growing risk and complexity of avionics development, the Air Force separated B-1 avionics into offensive and defensive functions for the purpose of selecting contractors for avionics integration. As an indication of the high technological demands made by the program requirements, only five contractors responded out of 27 companies solicited for offensive avionics integration. In April 1972, Boeing received the contract for developing the offensive avionics and integration of avionics subsystems. Boeing’s selection may have been related to the major avionics upgrades and integration efforts that it was involved with in the early 1970s on the B-52. Only two companies responded out of 23 for the defensive avionics, an extremely complex system development effort. Airborne Instrument Laboratory eventually won the contract. These avionics were not fully developed, however, before the entire B-1 program was canceled. (See Bodilly, 1993.)

A military and political consensus supporting the need for a new penetrating strategic bomber failed to coalesce in the 1970s. The doubts that had first arisen in the late 1950s about the basic role and cost-effectiveness of the manned bomber lingered on. In addition, antimilitary sentiment flourished in Congress in the wake of the Vietnam War, while the B-I R&D program experienced cost overruns and schedule slippage. In 1977, President Carter canceled the pro- gram after three prototypes had been built, in part because he expected development of the stealthy Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB). Continued flight testing of B-1 prototypes verified the basic design of the engine-airframe combination, but the avionics were not fully developed and tested. (Bodilly, 1993, pp. 4-5.)


Thus, as the 1970s drew to a close, it became increasingly clear that a full two decades would pass without the development of a single new strategic or dedicated medium bomber. Strategic bomber develoment had never recovered following President Eisenhower’s decision in 1959 to downgrade the XB-70 effort to a prototype demonstration program. Fighter-bombers, such as the McDonnell-Douglas F-4E, and dedicated CAS aircraft, such as the Republic A-10, had taken over the role of dedicated medium bombers, although the General Dynamics F-111 and FB-111 could legitimately be considered to be medium bombers in the pre-1960s sense. But with the cancellation of the XB-70 and the B-1, no new strategic bomber would emerge fully developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, the B-52, whose original design dated from no later than 1948, remained in service decades longer than originally anticipated and was continually upgraded and modified with new equipment and munitions. Indeed, the development of air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), which provided the B-52 with a long-range stand-off capability, was one reason opponents of the B-1 argued that no new strategic bomber was needed.

At the end of the 1970s, Rockwell appeared to stand out as the most credible, if not the only credible, bomber developer and seemed to have few real competitors. With its XB-70 and B-1 programs, it was the only company to have demonstrated system-specific capabilities by having worked on strategic bomber development throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, Rockwell had evolved increasingly into a contractor specializing in heavy bombers and spacecraft, since it failed to win any new fighter contracts following the cancellation of the F-107 and the F-108 in the late 1950s. Since this was a period of less-revolutionary change in airframe and propulsion technology than in the 1940s and the 1950s, system-specific capabilities were of particular importance.

General Dynamics could claim with some accuracy that it had continued the Consolidated and Convair traditions of bomber development and that it thus maintained system-specific capabilities-at least in the area of medium bombers-with the F-111 and FB-111 programs. At the same time, General Dynamics remained very prominent in the area of fighter development, having produced the F-16 aircraft in the early 1970s, which would become the most numerous fighter type in the Air Force inventory. Although Boeing worked on several large aircraft programs and developed numerous new commercial transports, it appeared to be pretty much out of the game with no new bomber or fighter development programs since the early 1950s.

All of this was to change dramatically, however, with the emergence of a revolutionary new technology approach to military aircraft in the late 1970s and early 1980s.