President Obama's new military strategy is taking shape here on the sun-seared grasslands of West Texas where B-1 bomber pilots train.
The strategy pivots from missions over the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan to targets on the sea and, though the military doesn't come out directly and say it, in China. "We're going back to the future," says Col. David Been, commander of the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess. "As the balance shifts from almost exclusively Afghanistan right now, we're shifting to the Asia-Pacific region."
After a decade of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- 6,350 Americans killed and more than $1 trillion spent -- Obama announced the new strategy in January that looks to counter the rising power of China. The changing role of the B-1 is a prime example of how the Air Force is responding.
Suddenly, the B-1, a plane that once seemed irrelevant after the end of the Cold War, is being repurposed again. First, the B-1 became the workhorse of the air war in Afghanistan. Now, as the Pentagon's strategic vision shifts to Asia, so too is the B-1.
"The B-1's 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 directed in the president's new strategic guidance," said Maj. Gen. Michael Holmes, assistant deputy chief of staff for Air Force Operations, Plans and Requirements at the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta highlighted those changes during a series of meetings with Pacific leaders recently.
"One of those principles in our strategy is the ability to be agile, to be quickly deployable, to be flexible, and to be on the cutting edge of technology," Panetta said in Cam Ranh, Vietnam. "And in a region as large as the Asia-Pacific region, agility is going to be extremely important in terms of our ability to be able to move quickly."
The armed services also will have to make do with less, with $480 billion in cuts to projected budgets forecast over the next 10 years. That puts a premium on existing weapons, at least in the near term. The Air Force wants a new bomber, one that is invisible to radar and possibly pilot-less. But that plane wouldn't be ready for combat until well into the next decade.
The B-1's revived fortunes, however, bode well for the communities that depend on the jobs affiliated with the bomber. The Air Force employs 13,000 people to support B-1 operations in three states, with an estimated economic impact just shy of $1 billion, records show. Not only is the bomber based at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, but it is also at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, and there is a maintenance facility in Oklahoma City.
A long road
It's been a long flight for the B-1 to its current role in the new military strategy. Designed in the 1970s to replace the B-52, the B-1 wasn't ready for missions until 1986.
A main feature is its terrain-following radar that allows the plane to fly itself at low altitude to avoid detection by enemies. "It's designed to fly over the pole by itself, hug the ground -- you push a button and you let go -- whether it's pitch black, a snowstorm, a rainstorm," Been says. "It would hug the ground, go into Russia, drop nuclear bombs and recover on the other side of the planet somewhere. All by itself. Not talking to anybody."
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