Why America's Enemies Still Fear the B-52

The B-52 has been deployed in virtually every major military conflict the United States has engaged in since the Gulf War.

We’ve already examined the colorful analysis [3] offered by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte regarding his country’s new jet fighter, so let’s today look at the aviation insights offered by a politician on our home shores.

In the September 26 presidential debate pitting Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump, when questioned about nuclear doctrine, Trump stated [4]:

“But Russia has been expanding their -- they have a much newer capability than we do. We have not been updating from the new standpoint.

This story was originally published by The National Interest

I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s, they're old enough that your father, your grandfather could be flying them. We are not -- we are not keeping up with other countries.”

The gist of it appears to be the B-52 is an obsolete airplane that proves that the United States Air Force has fallen behind the rest of the world, particularly Russia.

But Those Aircraft are Really Old, Aren’t They?

You can call off the fact checkers on this one! The B-52 Stratofortress first flew in 1952 and ended its production run in 1962, so the 76 B-52Hs in Air Force service are older than nearly anyone flying them. Trump is literally accurate in stating that “your grandfather” may have flown the plane, in that there is at least one family with three generations of B-52 crew members[5].

Such a storied plane is worthy of its own profile—how many planes can claim their own hairstyle, 1970s rock band, and cocktail?—but we’ll stick to the questions of its current relevance for now.

The B-52—nicknamed the BUFF—was originally intended to drop nuclear gravity bombs on the Soviet Union. That would already have been suicidal by the end of the 1960s given the rapid improvement of surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles, and would be even more so today.

So What Are They Good for? Why is the U.S. Air Force Still Flying Them?

The B-52 has been deployed in virtually every major military conflict the United States has engaged in since the Gulf War. Why?

The B-52 still has two things going for it: it can carry a lot of bombs and missiles [6]. And it can carry them very far—8,800 miles, before even factoring in in-flight refueling. Which you should. The airframe also has a lot of space for upgrades.

So basically, it’s a long-distance bomb and missile truck.

What if the target has air defenses? Then each B-52 can lug up to 20 AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missiles [7] (which can carry both nuclear and conventional warheads) across oceans and launch them from hundreds of miles away.

If you need to surge a ton of firepower somewhere halfway across the world from the nearest air base, the capability is there.

But B-52s often haven’t had to use expensive cruise missile—because most of America’s recent opponents, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or ISIS in Middle East, don’t have the powerful surface-to-air missiles necessary to shoot at a B-52 flying at high altitude.

B-52s loaded with twelve JDAM GPS-guided bombs or 4 to 10 GBU laser-guided bombs can orbit over battle zones, awaiting close air support requests from troops on the ground. Of course a jet fighter can do the same job—but fighters have shorter range, and can’t loiter overhead for nearly as long. When the United States intervened against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, it was B-52s and more modern B-1s flying from the United States lugging precision guided bombs that dropped much of the initial ordinance because the U.S. Air Force did not yet have local airbases from which its fighters could operate from.

Today, B-52s are actively flying missions against ISIS and the Taliban.

I Heard They’d be a Great Way to Carpet Bomb ISIS!

Carpet bombing involves dropping hundreds or thousands of unguided bombs to ‘carpet’ the target area. It’s an indiscriminate technique which does have a nasty shock effect. The B-52 is certainly capable of it—it can carry 51 conventional 500- or 750-pound bombs, or around 40 cluster bombs. B-52s did perform low-level carpet bombing attacks against Iraqi troops stuck in exposed defensive positions in the middle of the desert during the 1991 Gulf War.

However, the Air Force is uninterested in carpet bombing today. It only works against densely concentrated targets, which is certainly is not typical of the opponents it fights today. It also produces tons of collateral damage and couldn’t be employed near civilian areas without causing heavy civilian casualties for minimal military benefit. Carpet bombing during World War II—even on the occasions it was militarily effective—produced disproportionately civilian, and at times even friendly [8], casualties. Blowing up an ISIS held city would clearly be a war crime—and if that isn’t enough to dissuade, then the obvious political and military consequences should be.

So What Else are the BUFFs Good For?

Being able to fly over great distances for hours is very handy for patrolling—and interdicting—large bodies of water. Think of the vastness of South China Sea, the control of which is contested by China.

B-52s may not have the same sensors as the dedicated maritime patrol planes operated by the Navy, but some have been equipped with Litening and powerful Dragon’s Eye surface-search radar pods which can detect and identify vessels. Some have also been modified to carry eight AGM-184 Harpoon anti-shipping missiles—the latest version of which has a range of over 160 miles. So B-52s could play a useful role in a maritime conflict [9].

Now that we’re back to talking about the B-52 as a sort of missile truck, there is even talk of using them as flying arsenal planes—possibly even to carry anti-aircraft missiles.

Insanity you say! Hear this one out [10]. U.S. fighters are limited in the numbers of air-to-air missiles they can carry, particularly stealth fighters. This could be a problem [11] if faced by a numerically superior force. So instead, stealth fighters could ‘ride point’ and use their hard-to-detect Active Electronically Scanned Array radars to spot approaching enemy aircraft, and then use datalinks and networking to relay that data to another platform such as a ship—or an ‘arsenal plane’ such as a B-52 [12] or B-1 loaded with dozens of very-long range air-to-air missiles.

For now it’s just a theory—and one with its limitations, particularly if the other side has stealth fighters. But it’s one the Pentagon is actively considering.

Enough with missiles, let’s talk about one last application of the B-52: it’s serves as a highly visible means to make a show of force. Aircraft remain one of the more vulnerable ways to deploy a nuclear weapon when compared to ballistic missiles launched from submerged submarines or silos deep underground in the United States. But the latter two systems are hard to show off, whereas you can deploy a B-52 closer to a crisis zone, and have it perform overflights to send a clear threatening message.

Silly diplomatic posturing of no military value, you say? In fact, a report recommends that the Air Force retain its nuclear weapon capabilities primarily on the basis that it is a stronger means of communicating a threat posture when compared to other methods in the nuclear triad. Nobody actually wants to use nukes—the hope is that they will dissuade opposing countries from aggressive courses of action.

So, you can occasionally sees reports of B-52s conducting overflights of airspace claimed by China over the South China Sea [12] or a fly-by of North Korea [13] after a nuclear test. Just like the incidents where Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers buzz by the coast of England or California, the B-52’s indiscreet character actually better serves the political purpose of the fly-bys.

Doesn’t the metal in the airframes wear down? What about the ancient avionics and engines?

This is a consideration. But don’t worry—the Air Force is confident its B-52s will remain airworthy through 2040 and possibly longer. This is thanks to the B-52’s robust and conservative design, which allowed more tolerance for stress than later, higher-performing aircraft. Also, it’s because the Air Force has invested billions of dollars in keeping the B-52 airworthy and up to date.

Nonetheless, the avionics are old. A New York Times article [14] described the old hydraulics and wiring, and glitchy, outdated computer systems that still remain in the B-52 despite various upgrades and add-ons.

But the Air Force is spending $1.1 billion upgrading the BUFFs with its CONECT avionics upgrade [15] including modernized displays, communication systems, and datalinks for networking with friendly forces. It will also soon install the new Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade, which will allow it to carry additional guided weapons in its bomb bay. The bay would carry 8 additional JDAM-type weapons, or even allow the B-52 to deploy Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) missiles which can confuse enemy air defenses and even deploy radar jamming systems.

The B-52’s old TF-33 turbofan engines are also inefficient—as in, 3,000 gallons an hour inefficient. The Air Force would like to replace them with something less costly to maintain and operate, but can’t find the money—so they’re floating a proposal [16] to have a private company do the repairs on credit: once the new engines were replaced, the government would use the money saved in fuel economy to pay back for the upgrade. Certainly an example in creative financing!

Despite its flaws, the B-52s are still getting the job done and the Air Force clearly thinks they are useful. This is not the true for all of its oldies-but-goodies: the top brass has been pushing to retire the A-10 [17], another aged platform that also shines in low-threat environments.

In 2015, after a B-52 crashed in an accident, the Air Force spent $13 million dollars “regenerating” a B-52H retired to its famous aircraft “Boneyard” [18] in the Arizona Desert to takes its place—simply because $13 million is way less than the cost of any new bomber. (There are still 12 more B-52Hs in reserve in the Boneyard).

Don’t We Already Have Better Aircraft to Replace the B-52?

The Air Force does operate two more modern bombers, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the B-1 Lancer. But neither is poised to completely replace the B-52.

The B-2 Spirit is a stealth plane, which means it has a good chance of penetrating enemy air defenses. That’s highly useful against a peer opponent—but there are only 20 of them in service, they are somewhat temperamental, and they cost $135,000 an hour to fly and maintain, almost twice the flying cost of the B-52. That expense, and the Spirit’s reduced fuel and bomb load, mean that it’s not really ideal to use it as an everyday bomb truck in relatively safe environments nor to serve as a maritime patrol plane, though in the event of war with a peer power, its stealth abilities would certainly pay off. Nor is an undetectable stealth plane great for the whole diplomatic-big-stick mission either!

The B-1B Lancer, on the other hand, does perform largely similar missions to the B-52—and it can carry more munitions, fly 25 percent faster (830 miles per hour), and with less visibility on radar. But in today’s air defense environment, it’s still too visible to be a proper stealth plane, and too slow to avoid interception. So even though it’s better than the B-52, the Air Force still would be reluctant to send it into well-defended environments.

In the end, the B-1—popularly nicknamed “Bones”—have been used quite effectively to deploy laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles from high above, just like the B-52.

The B-1B is generally superior and has a lower operating cost of $60,000 an hour compared to the $70,000 required by the B-52—though it’s also hampered by a lower availability rate. In the end, because the Air Force maintains only 63 B-1s, the B-52s fill in when the Lancers are unavailable . . . or simply need a break, which is how B-52s came to be deployed in the fight against ISIS [19] earlier this year.

But what the future?

The Air Force just announced this year they are going ahead with the procurement of the B-21 Raider [20]—formerly known as the Long Range Strike Bomber [21]. The B-21 is a stealth aircraft that rather resembles the B-2 Spirit.

The idea behind the new B-21 is to have a long-range bomber that can cross Oceans and operate undetected by powerful air defense radars deployed by China and Russia, including low-band radars normally more effective at detecting stealth planes.

It’ll be absolutely huge! Though only figuratively—it’s thought to be slightly smaller than the B-2.

The B-21s are priced at over a half-billion a piece—before the inevitable cost inflations—so you certainly can’t say the Air Force is failing to invest in new technology, though some [22]argue the Pentagon should have negotiated a final price that’s less furtive than the aircraft.

But Doesn’t Russia Have a “Much Newer Capability” Than We Do?

Russia currently operates three types of bombers—the speedy Tu-22M3 Backfire, the even faster and larger Tu-160s Blackjack, and the Tu-95 Bear, all capable, Cold War-era designs. However, none of them are stealth aircraft capable of penetrating enemy air defenses like the B-2 or the forthcoming B-21.

The swing-wing Tu-22M3 can fly over 70 percent faster than the B-1—but at the expense of carrying much less armament and fuel. Speed has not proven a sure defense for the type: one was shot down by Georgian surface-to-air missiles in 2008.

The massive Tu-160 [23] is a sort of swing-winged mega bomber: it can attain Mach 2, can fly even further than the B-1, and can carry nearly as much weaponry. They are also extremely expensive to produce, maintain, and operate. Russia only has 16, many of which are not currently in flying condition. Like the B-1, though it has a reduced radar cross section, it’s not a plane that wants to be anywhere close to enemy air defenses.

Finally, we come to Russia’s sixtyish Tu-95SMs and Tu-142 Bears—which basically serve as Russia’s B-52s [23]. The Bear is just as old (first flight in 1952!), it’s assigned roughly similar missions—maritime patrol, lugging cruise missiles, scaring foreign countries—and it does them pretty well. But the propeller-powered plane is nonetheless slower, intolerably noisy, and carries less than half the bomb load of the B-52.

To round it out, the only other heavy bombers used in extensive numbers today are China’s 120 H-6s [24], upgrades of Cold War Tu-16s with inferior range and payload compared to the B-52.

Could this “new capability” be referring to something other than bombers? Russia indeed has come out with a lot of new weapon systems recently—but in the air, it’s largely a game of catch-up. Russia’s new Su-35, which is in limited production, may arguably have an edge over the F-15 Eagle [23], which entered in service in 1976—but not the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter.

Russia is developing its own T-50 stealth fighter [25]. The twelve currently on order would give Russia one-tenth the number of Raptor stealth fighters the United States already possesses in operational units, without counting the newer, though less capable, F-35s.

Arguably, in ground warfare technology that Russia has made some bigger strides with its new T-14 Armata tank, of which 100 are on order. But for now it relies primarily on thousands of T-72s, upgraded versions of the type devastated by U.S. ground and air forces in the 1991 Gulf War.

Russian missiles do appear to have daunting capabilities, including the upcoming sea-launched Zircon missile, the S-400 surface-to-air missile, and the Iskander short range ballistic missile system—the latter a weapon type the Russians rely on more because they can’t assume airpower will do the job for them. And of course, Russia still retains the capacity to bring about a nuclear apocalypse with intercontinental ballistic missiles, just like the United States can.

There’s no denying that Russia has made some major improvements in its military capabilities in recent years, despite its floundering economy. However, the United States spent $597 million on defense in 2016 compared to $87 million for Russia, a disparity of nearly 7 to 1. In many cases, even when Russia has developed promising new technology, it can’t afford to deploy it in significant quantity.

So Then…

The B-52 is nicknamed the BUFF, which stands for “Big Ugly Fat Fellow” (though in fact a different F-word applies at the end).

However, looks aren’t everything. The B-52 may not do the sexy, stealthy work of penetrating enemy air defenses and dodging SAMs and interceptors, but it does everyday job of hauling tons of ordnance across the globe and dropping it on top of ISIS insurgent bases and Taliban fighters, often at the request of hard-pressed troops on the ground.

Newer, fancier beasts exists for the task—and even more capable ones are on the way—but for now the B-52 does what it does rather well without real need of a replacement. Why toss out something old but reliable that does the job?

This story was originally published by The National Interest

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

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