American B-1 bombers play long-awaited role Once-canceled aircraft made its debut in combat

December 19, 1998|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Richard M. Nixon approved it, Jimmy Carter canceled it, Ronald Reagan resurrected it and Thursday, the B-1 bomber finally accomplished something many thought it would never do: It flew in combat.

Two B-1B Lancers dropped bombs onto a military complex near Baghdad, Iraq, the Air Force said yesterday.

"I certainly felt a sense of personal exhilaration at being able to lead this," Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Wolborsky, one of the two pilots, said in a conference call from the gulf. "The adrenalin was pumping."

Built by Rockwell International Corp. and costing more than $200 million each, the B-1 has been an icon of Pentagon waste and failure since it entered service in 1985 after a troubled history.

A sophisticated electronics system that was supposed to allow the supersonic jet to fly low and hidden from radar never worked, leading the Air Force to move on to the $2 billion B-2 stealth bomber.

What's more, the B-1 was designed to carry nuclear bombs far into the Soviet Union -- a mission that no longer exists.

The Pentagon never gave up on the B-1B, buying more than 90 in hopes that its long range, supersonic speed and ability to carry a whopping 100-plus bombs would prove useful one day.

The Air Force finally found a role for the plane in a recent reorganization of forces, said Brett Lambert, an expert with DFI International, a defense consulting firm in Washington.

By packaging the bomber with planes that can jam enemy radars, it finally became possible to include the B-1 in raids like those executed Thursday, Lambert said.

"That really saved that program from extinction," he said.

Wolborsky said that after the two B-1Bs took off, they quickly joined a formation of Navy planes -- F-14 Tomcat fighters, F/A-18 Hornet attack planes and EA-6 Prowler electronics jammers -- and flew to their target near Baghdad.

By contrast, the B-52s flying most of the bombing missions in Iraq are firing sophisticated "smart missiles" that find their way to targets from great distances.

"We're very satisfied," said Wolborsky's supervisor, Col. Tim Bailey of the 28th Bomber Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. "The aircraft, I think, has now been validated as a superior weapons system."

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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