Last month, a package of Boeing B-52 aircraft belonging to the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana deployed to Qatar to support bombing raids on the Islamic State terrorist network in Iraq and Syria. These B-52s replaced the Boeing B-1B “Bone” aircraft that left the region in January on a “six-month hiatus” back home for repair and refurbishment.
The last time these 54-year-old “Stratofortress” aircraft were operationally based in the Middle East, then-Iraq ruler Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and the B-52s were deployed to Saudi Arabia to support the US-led counteroffensive known as Operation Desert Storm.
These Strangelovian aircraft might have been conceived as heavy hitting Cold War nuclear bombers, but today they double as nuclear cruise missile carriers and conventional precision attack platforms capable of raining down satellite-aided smart bombs on pre-planned and opportune targets, even in close proximity to friendly forces.
US Air Force
It is the B-52’s inherent flexibility as well as its “payload, range, mass, precision and persistence” that has the deputy head of US Strategic Command saying America has a “deficit of long-range strike capability” and could use more bombers. The same can be said of the non-nuclear B-1 and the stealthy Northrop Grumman B-2, although there are just two “Spirit” squadrons with 20 usable aircraft between them.
“When you look at what bombers bring in terms of range, persistence and payload, we have a deficit of long-range strike capability,” says Lt Gen Stephen Wilson, a former B-1 and B-52 pilot who previously served as head of Air Force Global Strike Command. “What that number is going forward I can’t tell you, but I would say we’re not where we need to be on that long-range strike.
“As adversaries continue to build advanced anti-access, area-denial capabilities that force our forces farther out, bombers will become more important.”
US Air Force
Wilson was speaking at an Air Force Association forum in Washington DC on 6 May, in relation to Global Strike Command’s preparation of a "bomber roadmap” that is expected to recommend a larger bomber force than the current active mix of 150 or so B-1s, B-2s and B-52s.
The air force recently picked Northrop Grumman to develop and build “at least” 100 nuclear-capable “21st century” B-21 strategic bombers to replace the B-1 and B-52. But for how long those legacy aircraft will remain in active service depends on the total number of bombers needed and how fast the replacement B-21 platform can be delivered from Northrop’s former B-2 plant in Palmdale, California.
Global Strike Command chief Gen Robin Rand said in February that the ultimate number is likely somewhere between “175 and 200”, since there must be at least 10 operational squadrons of 12 aircraft to support America’s 10 Air Expeditionary Forces, plus a significant number more for training and attrition reserve.
Northrop Grumman B-21 planform
US Air Force
The US House Armed Services Committee is taking an interest in this question. The committee adopted legislation last week calling for a detailed report on the air branch’s bomber requirement, including the actual number of B-21s sought and a “transition plan that integrates the B-21 into the current bomber fleet through 2040”.
“The committee received independent testimony stating that the air force should procure between 174 and 205 B-21 bombers to ensure that enough aircraft are available to meet combatant commander, training, test, backup inventory, and attrition reserve requirements,” the panel’s mark of the fiscal year 2017 defence policy bill states.
Wilson described the B-1B as a “roving linebacker” for its ability to move throughout the US Central Command area of responsibility quickly and with many weapons. They “hit hard when they get there and stay on station for a long time,” he adds.
The introduction of precision-guided munitions, enabled by digital bomb bay upgrades, has kept the B-52 relevant since the type's maiden flight on 5 Aug 1954. It can now perform “a variety of missions including strategic attack, close-air support, air interdiction and maritime operations”, the air force says.
Each B-52 can carry 31.5t (70,000lb) of munitions
US Air Force
The B-52 is now being integrated with high-end conventional weapons like the Lockheed Martin extended-range AGM-158 joint air-to-surface standoff missile (JASSM-ER) and Raytheon ADM-160 miniature air-launched decoy/jammer (MALD-J). The air force is even exploring ways to use bombers as “arsenal planes” that would overwhelm enemy air defence systems with tens of thousands of cheap, mostly autonomous unmanned air vehicles acting as jammers, sensors, decoys and “kamikaze” bombs.
“In the counter-[Islamic State] fight they are doing a pretty terrific job,” Wilson says of the B-52. “What they bring is payload, endurance and a capacity that we often don’t have.”
There are 62 Boeing B-1Bs and two test models still in active service
US Air Force