The B-1B Lancer could be used to strike North Korean missile sites -- here's what the bomber can do

B-1B Lancer and Japanese F-15US Air ForceTwo B-1B Lancers flanked by South Korean F-15s.

The US Air Force conducted an exercise near the Korean Peninsula on Thursday involving two B-1B bombers and Japanese and South Korean fighter jets.

“The bilateral continuous bomber presence (CBP) mission was planned in advance … and was not in response to any current event,” the Air Force said in a statement.

North Korea called it a “surprise” strike drill — and they might not be incorrect.

The Pentagon has actually devised a plan to take out the North’s missile sites just in case President Donald Trump ever orders the preemptive strike, and the B-1B Lancers would a play a key role.

Here’s what we know about the plan and about what the Lancer can do.

The B-1B Lancer is a long-range, multi-role heavy bomber that was developed in the 1970s as a replacement for the B-52.

US Air Force

Source: US Air Force

The B-1B Lancer, which was first used in combat in 1998, was heavily used in Operation Iraqi Freedom during the Iraq War, dropping nearly 40% of all the coalition's munitions.

US Air Force
A Lancer at Andersen Air Force Base in July, 2017.

The Lancer, which is made by Boeing -- one of the largest defence contractors and political donors in the US -- will continue to be the backbone of the US strategic bomber force until about 2040.

Its four General Electric F101-GE-102 turbofan engines each provide the Lancer with more than 30,000 pounds of thrust.

US Air Force
A Lancer from the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron in South Dakota takes off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam in October, 2017.

Source: US Air Force

The Lancer can hit speeds of more than 1440km/h and climb to heights of more than 10,000 metres.

US Air Force

Source: US Air Force

It has a four-person crew, which includes a commander, copilot, and two combat-systems officers.

US Air Force

In 2014, the bomber received an upgrade called the Integrated Battle Station, which includes a Vertical Situation Display that consists of four multifunctional colour displays. The displays, seen above, give pilots more situational-awareness data in a user-friendly format.

Source: US Air Force

The Lancer has an internal payload of 75,000 pounds -- more than any other US bomber. And while the Lancer can't carry nuclear weapons, it is capable of carrying a variety of bombs and missiles.

South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty

The Lancer can be armed with the following:

84 500-pound Mk-82 or 24 2,000-pound Mk-84 general purpose bombs.

Up to 84 500-pound Mk-62 or eight 2,000-pound Mk-65 Quick Strike naval mines.

30 cluster munitions (CBU-87, -89, -97) or 30 Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispensers (CBU-103, -104, -105).

Up to 24 2,000-pound GBU-31 or 15 500-pound GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

Up to 24 AGM-158A Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles.

15 GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

Source: NBC News, US Air Force

If Trump decided to strike North Korea's approximately two dozen missile sites, an unknown number of the six Lancers currently stationed in Andersen Air Force Base in Guam would be deployed.

US Air Force
A Lancer takes off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam on October 11, 2017.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Logan told Business Insider that he could not say how many bombers might take part in a potential strike.

'We would never want to telegraph what we could do in any given situation,' he said.

Source: NBC News

The 3,370km flight from Guam to North Korea would take about 10 hours, and therefore the bombers would need to be refueled from KC-135s, as seen below.

US Air Force

Source: NBC News

The Lancers would be escorted by an unknown number of fighter jets as well.

US Air Force
Two Lancers from Andersen Air Force Base fly alongside two Japanese F-15 fighter jets on September 11, 2017.

Logan also could not comment on which fighters would escort the bombers, but F-15s from the US, South Korea, and Japan seem to have accompanied the Lancers in most of the recent practice bombing runs.

F-16s and Japanese F-2s have also taken part in some of the exercises.

Source: NBC News, Reuters, Reuters

The Lancers may strike the North's missile sites with their extended range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, which have a range of 800km and allow the bombers to hit their targets from well outside of the North's borders.

Lockheed Martin
A JASSM-ER being released from what looks to be a Lancer.

Source: NBC News, The National Interest

A preemptive strike on the North's missile sites, however, could escalate the situation, prompting Kim Jong Un to strike South Korea or Guam.

US Air Force
A B-1B Lancer performs a low pass over Osan Air Base in South Korea, July 2017.

One senior military officer told NBC News that this risk of escalation is one reason why the Lancer would be used: It cannot carry nuclear warheads and that might temper Kim's response.

But other officers, such as retired Adm. James Stavridis, are not convinced by the argument.

Source: NBC News

The Pentagon has other plans too, but such a US strike is 'the best of a lot of bad options,' one senior intelligence official told NBC News.

US Air Force
Two Lancers fly near the Korean Peninsula with two South Korean F-15s in June 2017.

Source: NBC News

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