Here’s What You Need to Remember: The B-52 survived where other bombers failed because it could continue to fulfill a very special set of roles in the Missile Age, including long-range low-altitude penetration strategic bomber, heavy conventional bomber, and more generally flexible large long-range weapons-carrying platform.
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?
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.
Conceivably, the USAF might have gone with a foreign design. The USAF went with the English Electric Canberra (built by Martin under license as the B-57) to fill its medium bomber gap in the 1950s, and it’s not inconceivably that in the absence of a decent domestic design the Americans could have considered a British design. However, while each of the Avro Vulcan, Handley Page Victor, and Vickers Valiant had some advantages over existing U.S. medium bombers, none could carry a payload equivalent to the B-52 or the B-60.
Finally, the Air Force could have just diverted its efforts wholly towards ballistic missiles in order to fulfill the nuclear mission. Ballistic missiles, while having enormous advantages over manned bombers, ran strongly counter to the USAF’s culture, especially in the years immediately after World War II when memories of the Combined Bomber Offensive continue to run strong. But the lack of a viable bomber before the development of the USSR’s integrated air-defense network might have forced the USAF to rely more heavily on the missiles, a choice that would undoubtedly have affected procurement in other area.
The B-52 survived where other bombers failed because it could continue to fulfill a very special set of roles in the Missile Age, including long-range low-altitude penetration strategic bomber, heavy conventional bomber, and more generally flexible large long-range weapons-carrying platform. None of the replacements of the B-52 would have performed these duties nearly as adequately. This would have negatively affected U.S. warfighting in Vietnam and in the first Gulf War, although probably not to a decisive extent.
The vanishing of the B-52 may have produced an even more dramatic shift towards tactical aviation during the Rise of the Fighter Generals in the wake of Vietnam. Indeed, the prospect of B-60s or B-70s (or both in combination) conducting World War II style formation bombing over Hanoi during Linebacker II might have been so absurd that even the most committed bomber advocates would simply have given up. To be sure, the rise of net assessment in the 1970s gave new life to the idea of a strategic bomber force, if only as a bluff, and it’s possible that the bomber lobby would have remained vital enough to bring the B-1B into existence (or perhaps even its abortive sister the B-1A), but much of the hole left by the B-52 would probably have been filled with non-bomber capabilities, either on the missile or the fighter side.
It is difficult to conceive of a world in which the United States had never acquired the B-52. The decision would have had ripple effects across the Air Force and the Department of Defense, with a not inconsequential impact on the Vietnam War. Indeed, the Air Force today would look very different if it could not rely on the B-52 as both a conventional and a nuclear bomber. The B-70 Valkyrie might well still be in service; the B-1B Lancer might never have been built, and it’s not completely impossible that the B-60 would have survived to the present day in some form.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book . He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
This article first appeared in July 2018.