On April 18, the U.S. Air Force’s massive B-52 Stratofortresses launched their first strikes against the Islamic State. In the mission over Qayyarah, Iraq, the lumbering warplanes dropped GPS- or laser-guided bombs onto a nondescript set of buildings.
But despite being icons of American military power, the bombers might not be the best tools for the job. When Boeing delivered the last B-52s more than a half century ago, the flying branch expected the planes would obliterate sprawling Soviet military bases and cities with nuclear bombs — not carry out pinprick strikes on terrorists in the Middle East.
“I just feel this is [the] B-52 being shoehorned into current operations,” Brian Laslie, Air Force historian and author of The Air Force Way of War , wrote onTwitter on April 20. “I’m not saying B-52 is wrong platform. I’m just not convinced it is.”
To be sure, the Pentagon has played up the decision to send the eight-engine heavy bombers back to war. The deployment to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar marked the first time the aircraft — informally nicknamed the Big Ugly Fat Fucker, or BUFF — had flown out of a base in the Middle East in more than 25 years.
In continuous service since 1955 and repeatedly upgraded, a single B-52 can lug 35 tons of bombs and missiles. While the plane can fly nearly 9,000 miles with a full load of fuel, aerial tankers can keep the BUFF airborne as long as the crew can hold out .
The bombers are “legendary,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, the Pentagon’s top spokesman for America’s war on Islamic State, told reporters on April 20. “Obviously, the B-52 does have a long and very illustrious history. So we do like to talk about it.”
The planes replaced B-1 bombers that had been flying over Iraq and Syria since August 2014. According to the Air Force , these “Bones” had flown only seven percent of the missions by manned aircraft since the bombing campaign started, but had lobbed nearly 40 percent of the weapons.
“The B-52s really are replacing the B-1s,” Warren explained. “[The B-52s] will conduct the same type of precision strikes that we’ve seen for the last 20 months here in this theater.”
But none of this really explains whether sending the BUFFs — or the “Bones” beforehand— was a practical move in a fight against small groups of militants, with few heavy weapons, who favor civilian style vehicles for transportation.
“I’m never a fan of using a platform just to use it,” Laslie noted on Twitter . “Was B-52 only platform capable?”
When the BUFFs touched down in Qatar, the Air Force already had F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16C Viper fighter bombers, F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, A-10 Warthog ground attackers and drones in the region. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps had F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8 Harrier jump jets flying from aircraft carriers and land bases. Coalition partners France and the United Kingdom added even more planes to the mix.
The vast majority of these planes can carry the same types of bombs the B-52 dumped on Qayyarah. Of course, the bombers can stay airborne longer and carry more weapons on each flight, potentially taking out more targets on each outing.
But that comes at a cost. The Air Force spends around $70,000 for every hour a B-52 is in the air. By comparison, the Bone costs the flying branch just over $61,000 per flying hour. At some $20,000 an hour, the smaller F-16s are significantly cheaper to put into combat. The venerable A-10 costs even less than that.
So for every hour of BUFF flight time, the Air Force could get three times as much out of its Vipers or Warthogs. In a video the Pentagon released of the strike at Qayyarah seen above, four or five individual bombs appear to rain down on different buildings in an Islamic State “weapons storage facility.”
We don’t know if the bomber went on to hit any other targets. But Air Force and Navy pictures routinely show their smaller jets carrying these many bombs — or more — on strikes in Iraq and Syria.
And the cost figures take into account the relative costs to repair and fuel up the various planes. Unlike many of the Pentagon’s smaller jets, which are still rolling off the assembly line in many cases, the aging B-52 can be logistically demanding.
When an A-10’s engine gave out over Iraq on April 9, 2015, the Warthog made an emergency landing at Al Asad Air Base. Five days later, a repair team — with the help of U.S. Marines at the base — had the jet ready to go again after installing an entirely new engine.
Unlike an A-10, replacing any one of a B-52’s eight engines costs $1.5 million and lot more effort, the Air Force explained in a 2013 news release . And compared to more modern power plants, Pratt and Whitney’s Cold War-era TF-33 turbofan is a noisy, dirty, inefficient gas-guzzler.