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Much-Maligned B-1 Bomber Proves Hard to Kill
August 1, 2001 

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Fighting with Failures Series: Case Studies of How the Pentagon Buys Weapons - B-1 Bomber

April 20, 2001 


The B-1 is the Air Force's primary long-range conventional bomber, capable of flying intercontinental missions at supersonic speeds and returning to bases in the U.S..

Short Cuts on the Way to Acquisition:

  • Testing on the B-1 revealed a host of critical shortcomings. The trouble is, it came too late: Serious design flaws weren't discovered until 1988, after the last of 100 B-1s rolled off the assembly line and were delivered to the Air Force. Ever since, the B-1 has experienced serious setbacks that required costly fixes.

  • By 1988, testing revealed that the B-1's sophisticated avionics system - its threat-warning and radar-jamming systems - had a serious structural flaw. Essentially, the aircraft's defensive and offensive systems were jamming each other. The result was that the pilot had to choose between protecting himself or carrying out his mission. More than a decade later, some of the plane's avionics problems have yet to be fully resolved.

  • In 1991, when the U.S. launched the air war against Iraq, the entire B-1 fleet was grounded due to catastrophic engine blade failures. Munitions limitations, inadequate crew training, and electronic warfare deficiencies also played a part in the aircraft not making an appearance during the Persian Gulf War.

  • Also in 1991, it was publicly revealed that although the B-1's mission included flying at high altitudes, its de-icing system didn't work. This limited the aircraft's ability to fly in bad and cold weather; Air Force operating instructions required that the B-1's engines not be operated when the temperature was 47 degrees Fahrenheit or less, the humidity was below 50 percent, or when visible moisture like rain or sleet was present at cold temperatures.

  • Upgrades to the bomber have since cost taxpayers billions of added dollars, and some testing of the aircraft's avionics upgrades has slipped until 2003.


  • The B-1 was originally designed as a cold-war long-range stealth bomber capable of carrying and delivering nuclear weapons deep into the Soviet Union. However, since the end of the cold war, the bomber has been in a state of transition. This shift began in 1993 and by 1997, the B-1 was officially reassigned to support Air Force conventional wartime missions and deliver precision-guided munitions. But the transition continues and problems remain.

  • The B-1 has, and continues to have, troublesome spare parts shortages, partly caused by a lack of funding, that seriously detract from its mission readiness. As recently as last fall, the aircraft was reporting a mission capable rate of 51.9 percent, the lowest of the Air Force's bomber fleet. During Fiscal Year 1998, the cannibilazation rate for the B-1B was 99 percent - virtually every aircraft that flew a mission had a part cannibalized from another B-1B.

  • The Air Force continues to report a large number of troublesome parts on the B-1, particularly related to the aircraft's aging avionics, cockpit displays, and its ALQ-161 electronic jammer.

  • Many of the B-1's munitions upgrades will not be completed until about 2006, and the defensive avionics upgrades will not be completed until about 2008. The testing delays have been the result of problems in developing the aircraft's new avionics flight software, according to the Department of Defense's Director, Operational Test and Evaluation. (DOT&E).

  • In its latest report, the DOT&E said that problems with the design of cockpit controls and displays could mean the aircraft will not be able to employ as many as 25 percent of its smart weapons.

  • Without upgrades to the aircraft's defensive avionics, the B-1's contribution to future conflicts could be seriously diminished, DOT&E said. "The B-1B may be limited to a stand-off role or use only after the air defense threat is suppressed," said the DOT&E's report.

  • Total Number of Aircraft: 100; Total Program Cost: $32.5 billion; Average Unit Cost: $325 million.

POGO's Fighting with Failures Series documents Pentagon shortcuts in testing and operational requirements that have resulted in weapons that do not work, that waste taxpayer dollars, or that are not suitable for combat.

Sources: Fiscal Year 2000 Annual Report, Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, March 2001; B-1B Conventional Upgrades, NSIAD-96-52R. December 1995; B-1B Bomber: Evaluation of Air Force Report on B-1B Operational Readiness Assessment, GAO/NSIAD-95-151, July 1995; Testimony, Nancy Kingsbury, Director, Office of Air Force Issues for National Security and International Affairs Division, General Accounting Office, before the House Government Operations Committee, Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security, March 1991; "Lack of Funds, Spare Parts Keep B-1Bs on the Ground," Air Force Times, September 18, 2000.


Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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