Strategic Air Command
The second B-1B, "The Star of Abilene", was the first B-1B delivered to the USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) in June 1985. Initial operational capability was reached on 1 October 1986 and the B-1B was placed on nuclear alert status. The B-1 received the official name "Lancer" on 15 March 1990. However, the bomber has been commonly called the "Bone"; a nickname that appears to stem from an early newspaper article on the aircraft wherein its name was phonetically spelled out as "B-ONE" with the hyphen inadvertently omitted.
In late 1990 engine fires in two Lancers caused the grounding of the fleet. The cause was traced back to problems in the first-stage fan, the aircraft were placed on "limited alert"; in other words, they were grounded unless a nuclear war broke out. Following inspections and repairs they were returned to duty beginning on 6 February 1991. Due to the engine problems, the B-1B was effectively sidelined in the Gulf War.
Originally designed strictly for nuclear war, the B-1's development as an effective conventional bomber was delayed until the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union had brought the B-1's nuclear role into question, leading to President George H. W. Bush ordering a $3 billion conventional refit. By 1991, the B-1 had a fledgling conventional capability, forty of them able to drop the 500 pounds (230 kg) Mk-82 General Purpose (GP) bomb, although mostly from low altitude. Despite being cleared for this role, the problems with the engines precluded their use in Operation Desert Storm. B-1s were primarily reserved for strategic nuclear strike missions at this time, providing the role of airborne nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union. The B-52 was more suited to the role of conventional warfare and it was used by coalition forces instead.
After the inactivation of Strategic Air Command (SAC) and the establishment of the Air Combat Command (ACC) in 1992, the B-1 developed a greater conventional weapons capability. Part of this development was the start-up of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School B-1 Division. In 1994, two additional B-1 bomb wings were also created in the Air National Guard, with former fighter wings in the Kansas Air National Guard and the Georgia Air National Guard converting to the aircraft. By the mid-1990s, the B-1 could employ GP weapons as well as various CBUs. By the end of the 1990s, with the advent of the "Block D" upgrade, the B-1 boasted a full array of guided and unguided munitions. The B-1B no longer carries nuclear weapons; its nuclear capability was disabled by 1995 with the removal of nuclear arming and fuzing hardware.
The B-1 was first used in combat in support of operations against Iraq, during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, employing unguided GP weapons. B-1s have been subsequently used in Operation Allied Force (Kosovo) and, most notably, in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The B-1's role in Operation Allied Force has been criticized as the aircraft was not used until after enemy defenses had been suppressed by aircraft like the older B-52 it was intended to replace. The B-1 has deployed an array of conventional weapons in war zones, most notably the GBU-31, 2,000 pounds (910 kg) Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). In the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom, eight B-1s dropped almost 40 percent of aerial ordnance, including some 3,900 JDAMs. JDAM munitions were heavily used by the B-1 over Iraq, notably on 7 April 2003 in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Saddam Hussein and his two sons. At the height of the Iraq War, a B-1 was permanently airborne to provide rapid precision bombardment upon important targets as intelligence identified them. During Operation Enduring Freedom, the B-1 was able to raise its mission capable rate to 79%.
The B-1 has higher survivability and speed when compared to the older B-52, which it was intended to replace. It also holds 61 FAI world records for speed, payload, distance, and time-to-climb in different aircraft weight classes. In November 1983, three B-1Bs set a long distance record for the aircraft, which demonstrated its ability to conduct extended mission lengths to strike anywhere in the world and return to base without any stops. The National Aeronautic Association recognized the B-1B for completing one of the 10 most memorable record flights for 1994.
Of the 100 B-1Bs built, 93 remained in 2000 after losses in accidents. In June 2001, the Pentagon sought to place one-third of its then fleet into storage; this proposal resulted in several U.S. Air National Guard officers and members of Congress lobbying against the proposal, including the drafting of an amendment to prevent such cuts. The 2001 proposal was intended to allow money to be diverted to further upgrades to the remaining B-1Bs, such as computer modernization. In 2003, accompanied by the removal of B-1Bs from the two bomb wings in the Air National Guard, the USAF decided to retire 33 aircraft to concentrate its budget on maintaining availability of remaining B-1Bs. In 2004, a new appropriation bill called for some of the retired aircraft to return to service, and the USAF returned seven mothballed bombers to service to increase the fleet to 67 aircraft.
On 14 July 2007, the Associated Press reported on the growing USAF presence in Iraq as a result of "surge" in forces. Also mentioned is the reintroduction of B-1Bs to be a close-at-hand "platform" to support Coalition ground forces. B-1s have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2008 B-1s have been used there in an "armed overwatch" role. They loiter over the region maintaining surveillance, ready to deliver guided bombs in support of ground troops if contacted.
The B-1B underwent a series of flight tests using a 50/50 mix of synthetic and petroleum fuel; on 19 March 2008, a B-1B from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, became the first US Air Force aircraft to fly at supersonic speed using a synthetic fuel during a flight over Texas and New Mexico. This was conducted as part of an ongoing Air Force testing and certification program to reduce reliance on traditional oil sources. On 4 August 2008, a B-1B flew the first Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod equipped combat sortie where the crew successfully targeted enemy ground forces and dropped a GBU-38 guided bomb in Afghanistan.
In March 2011, B-1Bs from Ellsworth Air Force Base attacked undisclosed targets in Libya as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn. The USAF had 66 B-1Bs in service in September 2012, split between four squadrons organized into two Bomb Wings: the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess AFB, Texas, and the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota.
With upgrades to keep the B-1 viable, the air force may keep the bomber in service until approximately 2038. Despite upgrades, the B-1 has repair and cost issues resulting from its age. For every flight hour it needs 48.4 hours of repair. The fuel, repairs and other needs for a 12-hour mission costs $720,000 as of 2010. The $63,000 cost per flight hour is, however, less than the $72,000 for the B-52 and the $135,000 of the B-2. In June 2010, senior US Air Force officials met to consider retiring the entire fleet to meet budget cuts. The Pentagon plans to supplement the aircraft with the Long Range Strike Bomber beginning in 2030. In the meantime, its "capabilities are particularly well-suited to the vast distances and unique challenges of the Pacific region, and we'll continue to invest in, and rely on, the B-1 in support of the focus on the Pacific" as part of President Obama's "Pivot to East Asia".
In August 2012, the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron returned from a six-month tour in Afghanistan. Their nine B-1Bs flew 770 sorties, the most of any B-1B squadron on a single deployment. The squadron spent 9,500 hours airborne, while having one of its bombers in the air at all times. They accounted for a quarter of the combat aircraft sorties over the country while there and averaged 2–3 requests for air support per day. On 4 September 2013, a B-1B participated in a maritime evaluation exercise, deploying munitions such as laser-guided 500 lb GBU-54 bombs, 500 lb and 2,000 lb Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), and Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM). The aim was to detect and engage several small craft using existing weapons and tactics developed from conventional warfare against ground targets; the B-1 is seen as a useful asset for maritime duties such as patrolling shipping lanes.
Beginning in 2014, the B-1 was used by the U.S. against ISIL in the Syrian Civil War. From August 2014 to January 2015, the B-1 accounted for eight percent of USAF sorties during Operation Inherent Resolve.