Boeing B-52 Stratofortress—Old is Gold!

The USAF relies on the B-52 because it has proved to be the most effective and economical heavy bomber option against nations with limited defensive capabilities

Issue: 8 / 2019By Joseph Noronha

It seems strange that the world’s largest and most powerful Air Force which flies only the most advanced aircraft, still operates a bomber that first flew in 1952. But the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is no ordinary plane. It is a highly capable, long-range, heavy bomber that can operate at altitudes of up to 15km. Affectionately called the Big Ugly Fat Fella (BUFF) due to its rather ungainly appearance, it entered service with the United States Air Force (USAF) in February 1955. A total of 744 B-52s were built and the last batch of 102 aircraft of the final B-52H variant was delivered to the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) in October 1962.

The B-52 was originally intended only as an atomic-bomb delivery vehicle against the Soviet Union, but it has proved adaptable to most types of offensive air missions. It can deliver a range of conventional weapons anywhere in the world thanks to its precision navigation and inflight refuelling capability. For decades, it formed the backbone of the US strategic bomber force. It has served in practically every conflict that America has been involved in since the mid-1950s and is undoubtedly the longestserving US military aircraft in history. Several replacements have been proposed and even attempted; but it has outlived them all.

The B-52 has a swept-wing configuration with eight engines paired in pods and suspended on four pylons beneath and forward of the wing’s leading edge. It has a crew of five. Its maximum takeoff weight is 219,600 kg. Originally fitted with turbojet engines it was modified in May 1961 with cleaner burning and quieter Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-3 turbofans. These engines, each with a maximum thrust of 17,100lbf (76.06 kN), give it a speed of up to 1,040kmph (Mach 0.84). The aircraft is equipped with advanced targeting pods that enable improved long-range target detection, identification and continuous stabilised surveillance for offensive missions, including close air support of ground forces. It can carry approximately 31,500 kg of bombs, mines and missiles in different configurations. It can attack ground targets with a variety of standoff weapons including gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision guided missiles (PGM), joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) or up to 20 Boeing AGM-86 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). It has an unrefuelled combat range of over 14,000 km.

On May 21, 1956, a B-52 dropped a single Mk-15 nuclear bomb over the Bikini Atoll – the first air-dropped thermonuclear weapon. Thereafter the B-52 became a critical element of America’s defence policy of massive retaliation. According to this policy, the Soviet Union would be deterred from using its nuclear weapons by the threat of an all-out nuclear response by the US strategic bomber fleet. Accordingly, the SAC always kept one third of its fleet of B-52s on quick reaction alert, ready to takeoff towards pre-designated Soviet targets within 15 minutes. During times of increased tension, armed B-52s were kept continuously airborne in rotation, ready to execute their deadly missions. When the Soviet Union improved its anti-aircraft defences rendering high-level ingress unsafe, the B-52s were adapted as low-penetration bombers. Flying at a height of just 150 m above the surface of the Earth, they could evade enemy radar pickup and deliver weapons.

The aircraft played a major role in Vietnam, repeatedly pounding Hanoi and Haiphong as well as carpet-bombing the Viet Cong. However, this conflict took a terrible toll of the B-52 fleet. No less than 31 bombers were lost, including 17 shot down in combat operations. They were also extensively used in the First and Second Gulf Wars, as well as over Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. During Operation Desert Storm, B-52s flew more than 1,600 sorties. Their combat employment continues even now with bombing missions reported over Syria last year.

And that is not the end of the story. Indications are that the B-52 will probably reach a century as an active bomber. The USAF relies on it because it has proved to be the most effective and economical heavy bomber option against nations with limited defensive capabilities. A B-52 costs about $70 million against $3 billion for the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit. The original B-52 has been considerably upgraded and is planned for further upgrades, the most important of which will be the provision of new engines and avionics. According to official figures, as of June 2019, the active fleet of B-52s was 58 aircraft with 18 in reserve. The US bomber fleet in the mid-2050s is expected to number 100 Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth aircraft currently under development and 20 B-2 Spirit planes together with 70+ Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bombers. Not bad for an aircraft that was initially planned to be withdrawn from service in 1975.