The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
Why B-52s Still Rule
by James Dunnigan
During the Afghanistan war, ten B-52s dropped a third of the bomb tonnage. That's a remarkable record for a fifty-year-old aircraft design.
The B-52 carried that much of the load because it's the most cost-effective heavy bomber we have. The B-52 has an accident rate of 1.29 per 100,000 flying hours. The B-1s rate is 3.48. The B-2 has a rate of zero, but it is flown far less because of the elaborate (and expensive) maintenance this aircraft requires. Compared to the supersonic B-1 and high-tech B-2, the B-52 is a flying truck. Thus the B-52, despite its age, was the cheapest, safest and most reliable way to deliver smart bombs over Afghanistan.
With a max takeoff weight of 240-250 tons, the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow) is basically a large aircraft designed to carry bombs. Lacking the supersonic speed of the B-1, or the stealth and automation of the B-2, the B-52 can carry up to 150 tons of fuel, and normally carries 12-20 tons of bombs (max load of 35 tons). What made the B-52 so useful in the Afghanistan war is its ability to stay in the air for so long. The B-52s flying out of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia to Afghanistan typically stayed in the air for some 16 hours. Since it can refuel in the air, the B-52 can fly anywhere in the world with a load of bombs or missiles.
Over Afghanistan, carrying a dozen 2000-pound JDAM (GPS-guided bombs), a B-52 could circle a combat area for hours, waiting for the special forces guys or Air Force controllers on the ground to send them the coordinates of a target. The JDAM landed (over 90 percent of the time) within 50 feet of the location the ground troopers wanted it. Better yet, most of the bombs arrived within ten minutes of the request.
Surviving enemy troops admitted that they were demoralized once they realized how this was working. At that point, the enemy fighters knew that if they saw Americans looking at them with binoculars (that included a laser range finder, to provide the B-52 with precise location data for the target), they had ten minutes to run away, or die. And often the enemy troops didn't know they were being set up for a JDAM. No place was safe from the one ton JDAMs. If you ran into a cave, it had better have another exit, because the JDAM would permanently close the one you just entered.
The B-52 can carry a large variety of weapons, including eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles and 20 cruise missiles. The B-52 has seen a lot of action in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, in the Balkans and over Afghanistan. The B-52 prototype first flew in 1952. The last one built, a B-52H, was in late 1962.
It's a large aircraft, with a wingspan of 185 feet, a length of 159 feet and a height of 17.5 feet (to the top of the fuselage, 40.6 feet to the top of the tail). Empty weight is 86 tons. It has a crew of five (pilot, copilot, navigator, electronics warfare officer and radar navigator). There used to be a gunner for a rear-firing 20mm cannon, but this was eliminated in the 1990s. Automation can reduce this even more. The 1970s era B-1 has a crew of four, and the 1980s era B-2 has a crew of two. The only B-52s flying are the B-52H model, all built in the early 1960s.
A true replacement for the B-52 was never built because no one foresaw the development of such accurate smart bombs, and the ability of the U. S. Air Force to destroy most anti-aircraft defenses. Indeed, even when faced with heavy defenses, the B-52 was able to fight its way through. During the twelve days of Linebacker II raids against North Vietnam in 1972, 15 B-52s were shot down by Soviet-built SAM-2 missiles. The 150 B-52s stationed in Guam flew 729 missions, for a loss rate of two percent. But because of the number of sorties flown, ten percent of the B-52s involved were brought down. Of the 92 airmen in the downed aircraft, 33 died.
After Vietnam, the B-52s received several generations of new electronic warfare equipment, learning much from the experience during Linebacker II. But there never was enough money to keep the B-52 completely up to date, especially with the equipment needed to use some of the newer bombs. Some B-52s got their JDAM equipment just before the war in Afghanistan. And this was mainly because the upgrade was cheap - wiring from the weapons officer's station to the bombs so GPS location data could be changed in flight. The 50-year-old B-52 became the weapon of choice over Afghanistan, able to hang around for hours and drop one-ton JDAM bombs on demand. The B-52 was upgraded to use JDAM before the B-1B because the B-52 is more reliable.
Currently, the Air Force has the capacity to shut down the high-altitude missiles systems of just about anyone, and then bring the B-52s in at high altitude to avoid low-altitude anti-aircraft guns and mobile antiaircraft missile systems. The B-1 and B-2 were built to deal with even more intense antiaircraft defenses. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, no one else has such a system. Perhaps, in the future, a nation like China may build another such formidable antiaircraft defense system. For the moment, because of the lack of first rate air defenses to stop it, the B-52 can still hack it in the combat zone.
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