The B-1B is taking over from the B-52 to continue USAF's hypersonic weapon testing

The United States B-1B fleet is to receive modifications to assist with the USAF's hypersonic missile program while its B-52s receive significant upgrades.
Christopher McFadden
The B-1B is to take the load off the B-52 for a while.


Boeing recently announced that the venerable B-1B bomber would become an essential testbed for the burgeoning U.S. Air Force hypersonic weapon development program. This is being achieved, according to Boeing, through the development of a new external pylon design called the Load Adaptable Modular (LAM) pylon that can handle payloads of around 7,500 pounds (3,402 kg). The Air Force is advancing the development of an air-breathing hypersonic cruise missile. This effort partially utilizes the ongoing tests of Boeing's experimental HyFly 2 design.

The announcement came at a press conference at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, according to Air & Space Forces Magazine. "The whole point of this … is for the B-1 to become the hypersonic testbed for the Air Force," Jennifer Wong, head of bomber programs at Boeing, said during the recent press tour at Tinker, according to Air & Space Forces Magazine. “Because of all the modernization efforts on the B-52, we can not take away from what we’re doing on the B-52 today to have it test hypersonics," she added.

The prime contractor, Boeing, is sustaining the B-1B and B-52. The Air Force intends to retire all B-1Bs by 2036 and replace them with new B-21 "Raider" stealth bombers while operating upgraded B-52s until at least 2050. The B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber fleet is scheduled for retirement shortly.

This news comes as a surprise as the Air Force's hypersonic testing plans for its bomber fleets have mainly focused on the B-52. The B-52 is the only AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) test platform, which has encountered technical difficulties and numerous failed tests.

Although initially intended to be the Air Force's first operational air-launched hypersonic missile, ARRW is expected to be terminated after the upcoming round of scheduled testing unless Congress takes action.

The Air Force has finalized its plans to upgrade the B-52Hs with new engines, radars, and other enhancements to significantly improve its capabilities in various areas. These upgrades will also change the external appearance of the aircraft. The extensive re-engining work will lead to the bombers being renamed as B-52Js. The bombers, essential to America's nuclear triad and also serving as important long-range conventional strike platforms, will require extended periods of downtime for necessary modifications. As a result, the Air Force's plans to upgrade its B-52Hs are facing delays.

For this reason, "we will be doing hypersonics testing on the B-1," explained Wong.

As also explained by Boeing, a B-1B could have six LAMs installed beneath its fuselage which would give it the capacity to carry up to 12 hypersonic cruise missiles or six of the Air Force's new 5,000-pound (2,268 kg) GBU-72/B bunker busters on the exterior. The pylons can also accommodate conventional weapons, such as a maximum of 48 GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs (SDB), with eight on each LAM. In addition, these planes can still carry more munitions in their three internal bomb bays.

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