Since 1955, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress has flown at the front lines of America’s national defense. Initially intended to deliver strategic nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, the B-52 has kept that mission long after the USSR itself ceased to exist.
Over the years, it has been assigned to other missions, including conventional strategic bombing against Vietnam, anti-shipping missions against Soviet naval forces, conventional interdiction and attrition against deployed Iraqi forces, and a multitude of different tasks during the Wars on Terror. Current projections have the B-52 outliving the B-1B, the B-2, and nearly every human who was alive during its first flight, with final retirement not coming until after 2050.
But what if the BUFF had not survived the procurement battles that embroiled the Air Force and the rest of the U.S. defense establishment in the 1940s?
How would the Air Force, and the broader U.S. defense establishment, have filled the hole vacated by the B-52?
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The months and years following the end of World War II saw a bewildering array of different bomber designs. The U.S. Army Air Force (soon to be the U.S. Air Force, or USAF) had put advanced design work on hold until the end of the war in order to concentrate on the B-29.
The introduction of jet propulsion and of nuclear weapons transformed the procurement agenda, and left the piston-engined Convair B-36 Peacemaker as the only viable transcontinental strategic bomber. But the B-36, which saw initial development in the early 1940s as an anti-German weapon, was clearly insufficient to the demands of the jet age. Thus, new design work ensued even as the USAF went to bat for the Peacemaker. The earliest versions of what would become the B-52 hit paper in late 1945.
The B-52 design underwent several severe design changes in its first two years, shifting from a straight wing piston-engined bomber to a swept wing jet-engined aircraft. But in December 1947 the project was very nearly cancelled due to cost overruns and concerns about the viability of its engines. Several other firms offered viable (and no so viable) alternatives, and the survival of the Stratofortress was by no means assured.
The cancellation of the B-52 would have left the USAF in a dire position.
The B-36 fleet had been obsolete before the first aircraft left the factory, elaborate fixes such as attaching short-range fighters to the bomber’s wings notwithstanding. The Soviet interceptor fleet would have devoured the Peacemaker alive, one reason why Curtis Lemay had declined to deploy the bomber over Korea.
The USAF did possess medium bombers, including the Boeing B-47 Stratojet and the Boeing B-50, an update of the B-29. Both of these had limited range and limited payloads, however, necessitating the use of foreign bases or inflight refueling in order to reach targets in the USSR. The Convair B-58 would enter service in 1960, but was not generally regarded as satisfactory. All told, a return to medium bombers after the Peacemaker would have been viewed as a substantial setback for USAF’s bomber force.
The USAF might have turned to the B-60, Convair’s update to the B-36. The jet-engined bomber shared a great deal in common with its predecessor, including enormous size and lack of substantial maneuverability. The B-60 could carry a heavier bomb load than the B-52, although at a significantly lower speed. In the real world, the Air Force cancelled the B-60 after test flying a single prototype, in large part because of the acceptability of the B-52. On the upside, as the B-60 used many of the same parts as the B-36, it was considerably cheaper than the Stratofortress.
But the B-60 would have struggled to adapt to the new environment posed by Soviet adoption of the SA-2 surface-to-air missile. Handling problems and enormous size would not have made it ideal for the low-altitude penetration mission that the B-52 evolved into, although extra space for a sophisticated electronics suite probably would have helped. But overall, it seems unlikely that the Air Force would have accepted the B-60 as a long-term solution to its bomber problem.
All of this would have made the Air Force’s argument on behalf of the B-70 much stronger. The Department of Defense cancelled the B-70 not simply because of developments in Soviet military technology, but also because of the B-52 remained satisfactory. Without an effective strategic bomber, the case for the B-70 would have become much more compelling, SAMs and fast interceptors notwithstanding. Unfortunately, the B-70 lacked the flexibility of the B-52, and would have struggled to adapt to many of the missions that the United States has assigned to the BUFF.