We’ve already examined the colorful analysis offered by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte regarding his country’s new jet fighter, so let’s today look at the aviation insights offered by a politician on our home shores.
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!
Carpet bombing involves dropping hundreds or thousands of unguided bombs to ‘carpet’ the target area. It’s an indiscriminate technique which does have a nasty shock effect. The B-52 is certainly capable of it—it can carry 51 conventional 500- or 750-pound bombs, or around 40 cluster bombs. B-52s did perform low-level carpet bombing attacks against Iraqi troops stuck in exposed defensive positions in the middle of the desert during the 1991 Gulf War.
However, the Air Force is uninterested in carpet bombing today. It only works against densely concentrated targets, which is certainly is not typical of the opponents it fights today. It also produces tons of collateral damage and couldn’t be employed near civilian areas without causing heavy civilian casualties for minimal military benefit. Carpet bombing during World War II—even on the occasions it was militarily effective—produced disproportionately civilian, and at times even friendly , casualties. Blowing up an ISIS held city would clearly be a war crime—and if that isn’t enough to dissuade, then the obvious political and military consequences should be.
So What Else are the BUFFs Good For?
Being able to fly over great distances for hours is very handy for patrolling—and interdicting—large bodies of water. Think of the vastness of South China Sea, the control of which is contested by China.