The United States Air Force recently demonstrated the increased capabilities of its venerable but still potent Boeing B-52 strategic bombers over Afghanistan. During a recent sortie, a single B-52 unleashed a payload of 24 precision-guided munitions (PGM) onto a drug lab.
“You can see how a single B-52 demonstrates its reach and lethality by setting a record employment of 24 precision-guided munitions against Taliban narcotics and training facilities,” Maj. Gen. James ‘Scorch’ Hecker, commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan and NATO Air Command-Afghanistan—also a F-22 Raptor pilot—told reporters at the Pentagon on Feb. 7. “What allowed this impressive air power to be unleashed was a critical modification that we made to the B-52 at Al-Udeid in late November...”
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That modification is the installation of a new rotary launcher in the massive bomber’s weapons bay. “It used to be that the B-52 was able to drop 16 precision-guided munitions,” Hecker said. “Now, with this new rotary launcher, it's able to drop 24 precision-guided munitions, and it could do that all in one pass. But in this case, we had three separate targets, so we did it in three different passes.”
As Hecker noted, with its 50 percent increased PGM payload, the bomber was able to make multiple passes of over the same target on the same sortie. “That was the same B-52 on both of those strikes. In fact, this was the B-52 that set the record for the number of PGMs, so it had a third strike that you did not see. So there's a total of 24 precision-guided munitions that went against those targets up at Badakhshan,” Hecker said. “This was the same sortie. So, on one sortie they did three passes, where they dropped a total of 24 precision-guided munitions.”
However, while the B-52 is a still a very effective weapon in low threat environments, the bomber is no longer able to penetrate into hostile air space. As the United States starts to focus on great power confrontations again, the B-52 will have to rely on cruise missiles to fight those highly capable enemies.
While today’s weapon of choice against such forces is Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM), if the future the United States may have to adapt the stealthy developmental Long Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear-tipped cruise missile into a conventional weapon. Indeed, the current day CALCM is an adaption of the nuclear-tipped ALCM. However, both the ALCM and the CALCM are increasingly challenged by modern air defenses. Thus a new conventional cruise missile will eventually be needed.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest . You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.