On April 20th a US Air Force spokesman announced that the B-1B Lancer bombers that have been dropping precision guided weapons on ISIS were rotating back to the USA for maintenance. That was inevitable; there are only 67 operational airframes in the B-1B fleet, and many of them are held back for the strategic role, so the ones tasked to the Middle East can’t be kept there forever. Now their job has been taken over by a detachment of B-52H Stratofortresses.
The B-52 is a bit of a dinosaur. The type first entered service in February of 1955 and, by the time the production line closed in 1962, a total of 744 had been built. In that time, they’d gone from the pre-production B-52A to the initial B-52B service model, then through a series of increasingly capable upgrades that ended with the B-52H. By modern standards that’s an incredible pace of development, and the rate of production is pretty staggering too. Now the BUFF – Big Ugly Fat F***er – is a flying dinosaur – but in the late 1950s it was the most complex and advanced aircraft in the world.
Obviously it’s a long way from being the most advanced aircraft in the world now. All of the A to G models are long gone – mostly out to the huge desert boneyards, many of them with their wings sheared off so Russian satellites can confirm they’re no longer a menace. But, of the 102 H models built, 76 are still in service with the USAF. Two generations of more modern bombers have arrived, the fast low-level B-1B and the stealthy B-2A, but the last BUFFs are still flying and the plan is for them to serve on into the 2040s. By that time, the newest airframes will be 80 years old; imagine NATO bomber squadrons today flying B-17s, Wellingtons or Heinkel He 111s, and that’s how much of an anachronism the B-52H will be when it finally retires. Walking around one now is like stepping into a time machine – the flight deck is a mass of dials, switches and fishbowl-shaped CRT displays.
Under the skin, though, the B-52H has been constantly upgraded. Through the 1960s and 70s they were fitted with navigation equipment for various generations of cruise missiles. They received low-light gear to assist with low-level flying. Guidance systems designed for tactical aircraft, like the LITENING pod, have been added. The flight controls might be pure 1950s, but when it comes to electronic warfare, armament, communications and navigation they have surprisingly modern capabilities.
And that’s the secret of why the B-52 has survived so long, and looks set to carry on for decades more. It’s easy to upgrade, because it’s huge. Adding more systems to a modern aircraft can be a real challenge, because space is at a premium, but the giant hull of a B-52 can swallow pretty much any piece of equipment you want to bolt on. Then it can carry it for thousands of miles, because those enormous wings give the BUFF massive lift. Finally, it can deliver more than 30 tons of weaponry over global ranges and loiter over the target for hours. If you’re facing an enemy without an air force, like ISIS, the B-52 is still the ultimate bomber. Cruising thousands of feet above the range of guns or MANPADS, it can stay on station for long periods, observe a huge area and precisely flatten multiple targets with complete impunity. So the withdrawal of the more sophisticated, but smaller, B-1Bs doesn’t mean USAF capability in the Middle East has been reduced. In fact it’s probably increased.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.