Fact: The U.S. Air Force Could Send This ‘Old’ Bomber to Pulverize North Korea
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 or a fly-by of North Korea 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.
In the September 26 presidential debate pitting Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump, when questioned about nuclear doctrine, Trump stated:
“But Russia has been expanding their -- they have a much newer capability than we do. We have not been updating from the new standpoint.
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.
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. 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 (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!