Do US bombers (B1 in particular) fly missions "with" air support always? (Nork photo)

Query is from some photos widely shown recently as the NK situation heats up: the B1 cruising flanked by what ISTRC are F-15s, which would make sense in my antiquated (?) notion of bombing runs.

What with stealth bombers and all, including preparatory/simutaneous Wild Weasel and AWACs support, is the image I have of a heavy-duty bus protected by nimble air-to-air fighters only in old-style war, or what?

We heard about the B2 flying from US to far-the-hell-away and back in what I understood to be splendid solo missions. Is that true, and if so an unsuitable mission for any other bomber in the inventory?

Yes and no. The B-1 was designed as a low-level. high speed penetration bomber which was supposed to be fast enough to ignore Soviet air defenses (and which could not have been accompanied by escort fighters due to range issues). Since the end of the Cold War, it’s been used as a tactical bomber, so it will sometimes be escorted. In the pictures from Korea the bombers are accompanied by South Korean F-15Ks.

And although the pictured scenario makes limited operational sense (escorting bombers into a strike), it makes much more sense as public relations – the might of the United States standing firm with our stalwart South Korean allies, who are providing their own formidable airpower.

Hell, I expect a photo-op formation is tactically terrible. Everyone’s too close together. One lucky SAM and the entire strike package is done.

Yeah, I know that the photo op was just that, but it did spark the query. Which I still find interesting–“penetration bombers” versus bomb sleds, as I believe LSLGuy once put it, and the whole mix of the rain from hell scenarios (excluding naval and land based missiles).

Wait…range issues? Surely in-flight refueling is not so recent?

Interestingly its no longer used in the Nuclear role. Since it was worse than the B2 at the “penetrating Russian Air Defences” job and worse than the B-52 at the “carry lots of long range stand off weapons” job.

A B1’s Combat unrefueled radius is 6000 km. An F16’s is 500 km. The damn tanker will have to escort the package almost to the target.

Not so long ago someone posted a link to a. Beautifully informative graphic about the longest refueling boot-strapping (tankers refueling tankers) fighter package, during the Falklands War. I’ll look for it, but that’s the idea.

Lots and lots of mixed thinking here. But AK84 has the nub.

For penetrating deep into a big continent sized countries in a WWIII scenario, bombers are going to be on their own. There’s no way to drag fighters along. And certainly no way to drag tankers.


The peninsular part of NK is about 100 x 150 miles. Or about 12 x 18 jet-minutes. The non-peninsular part to the Northeast only extends 30 to 60 miles inland = 4 to 8 jet-minutes. Go any deeper inland and you’ve entered China :eek: :smack:

There’s no problem bringing suitable escort fighters along on missions like that.

Said another way, NK is too small to bring the whole USAF to bear; there isn’t room to swing a cat in that broom closet.
As gnoitall correctly said, an actual escorting formation nowadays isn’t photogenic, nor does it resemble WWII practice. Everything is much more spread out. A layman probably can’t even spot one aircraft from another. Much less spot the small gray dot on a PR photo.

When you see a pic like this:
think the aerial equivalent of this:
Not this:
In my era we did not have stealth. As a general rule SAC (as it then was) was not real keen on bringing B-1s or B-52s into anywhere with meaningful numbers of enemy fighters. It was TAC (as it then was) and the corresponding regional tactical commands who had the job of carrying the bombs into enemy territory before the opposition air force had been neutralized.

So generally speaking, the tactical forces’ tasks in order were: Kill the enemy’s air force. Kill the enemy’s air defense missile systems. Then, and only then, begin to kill the rest of the enemy’s military and civilian targets. Which third step is where the heavies first enter the fray.

There was certainly room in those priorities for things like punch a temporary corridor through the enemy air defenses long enough for a batch of B-1s to visit a high value target and get home mostly unscathed. For a small enough country, or one dumb enough to place its Capital near a border or shoreline, even the enemy capital city is readily accessible via temporary corridor.
The advent of stealth changes things. The F-22, F-35, and B-2 can operate effectively much earlier in the attrition of enemy air defense and much more safely at any level of enemy air. But to do so, they must not be seen in the company of ordinary non-stealth aircraft. One F-15/16/18 or B-1 completely ruins their sneak. Instead of sneaking up on the enemy, the enemy knows they’re coming. Which is … unhealthy.
In the current unpleasantness in the Mideast, the enemy (be they states or irregulars) completely lack an air defense. So there’s no need of escort for heavies.

As AK84 explains, with or without in-flight refueling it’s a very long way to Moscow.

Dunno about the infographic, but it was Vulcans (long-range strategic bombers not dissimilar to the B-1, though of an earlier era) refueling each other in order to reach the Falklands from mainland Britain.

Point of clarification: that Wikipedia article, and my recollection, is that the RAF’s aerial refueling component of that mission was handled by their standard Handley Page Victor K.2 tankers. Which were converted 50s-era V-series medium strategic bombers and predecessor of the Vulcan in that role. But dedicated tankers, nonetheless. No “buddy tanking”.

Vulcans were apparently converted into tankers after the Falklands war to close a capability gap between the retirement of the Victors and the accession of the Vickers VC10, but that’s a different (and less interesting) story.

You are correct. My memory was faulty. :slight_smile:

Low altitude flying is very uneconomical in terms of fuel usage, flying at high speed even more so. The philosophy behind the B-1 (and other low altitude, high speed penetration bombers such as the F-111 and Tornado) was that the threat of surface-to-air missiles had grown so great that the traditional approach of flying as high and fast as possible was no longer going to be viable in a NATO vs Warsaw Pact type of scenario. Purely as a range issue and ignoring for the moment the practicality of it, yes F-15s using in flight refueling could have flown close escort for B-1s on deep penetration strategic missions deep into the USSR to deliver nuclear weapons. The practical issues are 1) flying close escort would be of very questionable utility, and the fighters and their pilots would require dedicated training and outfitting to carry out this questionable mission; the B-1 (and Tornado, F-111, etc) used terrain following radar to fly at very, very low altitude at extremely high speed. 2) You can’t perform in flight refueling at such a low altitude, so the fighters would have to break close escort to climb to altitude to refuel from the tankers, which of course leads to practical problem number 3: the tankers aren’t going to be there because they’d quickly have been taken out by Soviet air defenses, flying at medium speed and altitude alone into a forest of SAMs and fighters directed by ground based radars.

I’ll gladly stand corrected, but as far as I know the USAF never intended to fly fighter escort for strategic bombers if WWIII broke out, even in the days when it was thought high and fast would mean the bomber would always get through.

Side note: the Tornado suffered the highest attrition rate of all aircraft types during the 1991 Gulf War because the way they were designed and trained to fly missions left them at the greatest risk to low altitude anti-aircraft fire and the threat they were designed to evade, SAMs at higher altitude, were quickly neutralized by the Coalition air forces.

I think that the assumption was that B-50s and B-36s would have fighter escorts (F-82s and early jets). SAC certainly had "Strategic Fighter Wings. There was even the insane F-85 Goblin and other parasite fighter projects. But I think that once jet-powered B-47s and B-52s entered the force, that all ended.

Here you go

I would imagine that it takes something like six hours after the bombers pass their failsafe points and come into range of their drop points. Compared to 30 minutes for the ICBM’s and 20 minutes for the SLBM’s. So five and a half hours of a fragmented airspace, and spotty command and control on the russian side would give the heavies a decent chance.

Some of the bombers did have rear guns, either 50 cal or 20 mm vulcans as well as defensive weaponry like the Genie or Falcon, which had a small atomic warhead. Add in the ECM suite and Scram missiles in the later variants, I would guess that the bigger problem is target saturation and having to switch to secondary and tertiary targets, or simply coming back home without having expended any ordinance.

Wish this question was asked just a few days earlier, I was just at an airshow where a B-1 was featured and I chatted with the crew a. Little bit. The B-1 Is a supersonic bomber that can carry a slightly higher payload then the B-52. It doesn’t have any stealth but it’s a much lower RCS than the B-52. The B-52 originally had a tailgunner at one point but since then the tails have all been retrofitted with the guns remove. By comparison the B-1 never had any type of defensive weapons on it. I think it relies on its speed and high altitude capabilities to avoid the enemy. I was also amazed at the range of a B-1. I don’t know the exact number but 1 took off from Texas and flew up to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the airshow, did a couple of passes and flew back to home base without needing refueling…

Here’s an awesome video of the plane leaving for those interested.

I wrote a paper in college on B-1 procurement (the Air Force very adroitly awarded contracts all over the country, in part to have lots of Congressional support). A handsome aircraft and still proving its usefulness in the Middle East, if not over Russia.

A whole lot of effort for very little good. I’ve read quite a bit on the Falklands War recently, and those raids were almost entirely ineffectual.

lol all that work for only 1 bomb to hit the runway. still can’t believe someone gave the go ahead for that mission