Strategic bombers have a storied place in US military history, from the early days of the former Strategic Air Command when the only way America and the former Soviet Union could launch nuclear weapons at each other was by air, to the B-52’s carpet bombing missions in Vietnam.
What no one expected, is the fact that the B-52, which entered service in the mid-1950s and is known to crews as the Big Ugly Fat Fellow, keeps finding ways to stay relevant.
This might seem to defy logic, but the BUFF will likely outlive its designers and builders, and even the first crews who flew it, and could still be flying at age 100, The Associated Press reported.
The Air Force sees it as a matter of money, numbers and strategy — but mostly money.
As it charts a bomber future in line with the Pentagon’s new focus on potential war with China or Russia, the youngest and flashiest — the stealthy B-2, costing a hair-raising US$2 billion each — is to be retired first. The oldest and stodgiest — the 1950s-era B-52 — will go last, AP reported.
“In my mind, it actually does make sense to have the B-2 as an eventual retirement candidate,” says John Avery, who flew the B-2 for 14 years from Whiteman Air Force Base in western Missouri.
The Air Force expects to spend at least US$55 billion to field an all-new, nuclear-capable bomber for the future, the B-21 Raider, at the same time the Pentagon will be spending hundreds of billions of dollars to replace all of the other major elements of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
The Air Force also is spending heavily on new fighters and refueling aircraft, and like the rest of the military it foresees tighter defense budgets ahead, AP reported.
The B-2’s viability suffers from the fact that only 21 were built, of which 20 remain. That leaves little slack in the supply chain for unique spare parts. It is thus comparatively expensive to maintain and to fly. It also is seen as increasingly vulnerable against air defenses of emerging war threats like China.
The venerable B-52, on the other hand, is equipped to drop or launch the widest array of weapons in the entire Air Force inventory, AP reported. The plane is so valuable that the Air Force twice in recent years has brought a B-52 back from the grave — taking long-retired planes from a desert “boneyard” in Arizona and restoring them to active service.
“The B-52 has been able to last as long as it has for a few reasons,” Michael Blades, vice president of aerospace, defense and security at Frost & Sullivan, told National Interest.
“The main issue is its simplicity,” Blades said. “Its control surfaces are moved by cables, pulleys, and hydraulics. It is a much simpler system than newer fly-by-wire technologies that are more complex and more difficult, and expensive, to repair.”
Blades added that another factor is that B-52s can be upgraded because they are a more flexible airframe – and cheaper to upgrade than stealth aircraft. Then there are the materials.
“Modern aircraft also utilize composites and other materials that are not as easy to replace as sheets of aluminum which is what constitutes the B-52’s skin,” he explained.
“Another factor that has led to the Stratofortess’s longevity is its flexibility. It was designed to deliver nuclear weapons over long distances but is just as effective at launching ALCMs, dropping conventional bombs for carpet bombing, or delivering precision-guided munitions for more surgical strikes.”
Then there is the fact that like a classic car it could come down to how it has been used. Blades noted that even those B-52s that were built in the 60s do not have the amount of flying hours on them than other 60’s era aircraft. Many simply sat on alert for many years during the Cold War, National Interest reported.
“All in all, the simpler design has been easier to repair, easier to upgrade, and easier to modify than most modern aircraft,” said Blades.
After two decades of fighting small wars and insurgencies, the Pentagon is shifting its main focus to what it calls “great power competition” with a rising China and a resurgent Russia, in an era of stiffer air defenses that expose B-2 vulnerabilities, AP reported.
Thus the Pentagon’s commitment to the bomber of the future — the B-21 Raider. The Air Force has committed to buying at least 100 of them. The plane is being developed in secrecy to be a do-it-all strategic bomber.
Also retiring early will be the B-1B Lancer, which is the only one of the three bomber types that is no longer nuclear-capable.
The B-52, however, will fly on. It is so old that it made a mark on American pop culture more than half a century ago. It lent its name to a 1960s beehive hairstyle that resembled the plane’s nosecone, and the plane featured prominently in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy, “Dr. Strangelove.”
Rather than retire it, the Air Force is planning to equip the Boeing behemoth with new engines, new radar technology and other upgrades to keep it flying into the 2050s. It will be a “stand off” platform from which to launch cruise missiles and other weapons from beyond the reach of hostile air defenses.
USAF thinking is simple, it’s not rocket science: The B-52 costs far less to operate and maintain than the newer but finicky B-2.