US Air Force keen to show off combat jet

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THE AIRCRAFT deployed to the Gulf by the United States include one marque that has been in the US armoury for more than a decade, but which has never been used in combat. That might explain why the US Air Force is keen to show the merits of the B-1B Lancer bombers against Iraq, and justify the $20bn (pounds 12.4bn) spent on them.

"I went around this past year and visited all the geographical [Commanders- in-Chief], the war-fighting [Commanders-in Chief], and I gave them an extended briefing ... to encourage them to fully fold the bombers into their mission planning," said General Dick Hawley, Air Combat Commander, earlier this year.

"For a long time a lot of fingers were pointed at the B-1," he said. "It has never been in combat, how come we have this expensive aircraft? Nobody's using it"

Six B-1Bs are now being sent to the Gulf. They are only a small part of the overall air armada. But politically, it is a very important event for the US military.

The B-1B is a long-range, multi-role heavy bomber that was developed from the earlier B-1A, a veteran of the 1970s. It was intended to play a central role in America's nuclear fleet, be capable of flying from air bases in the US to bomb targets in Russia without refuelling, evade air attacks, jam enemy electronics and skim across terrain.

The B-1B, with swing wings, a top speed of Mach 1.2 and the ability to carry a variety of nuclear weapons, was supposed to be a state-of-the- art nuclear vehicle for the 1980s. The first one was delivered in 1985, and by 1988 there were 100 in operation. But by the next year, the Berlin Wall was down and the Cold War was over. Given that they had cost $200m apiece, this was something of a disappointment to the US Air Force, to say the least.

The Pentagon then decided to spend another $2.5bn to convert the giant aircraft to carry conventional weapons. But this became controversial when it was reported that the aircraft had never achieved its objective of having a 75 per cent mission-capable rate.

The air force protested that this was because not enough had been spent on spare parts and maintenance. The Conventional Munitions Upgrade Programme has meant that B-1Bs can now now be used with normal munitions, and the air force has been pushing the aircraft to be used alongside the B-52 and the US Navy's Tomahawk Cruise missiles.