Murphy's Law: Buffs Get Boned


March 13, 2012: U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers have recently flown their 10,000th mission. Not bad for a hundred aircraft that entered service in 1985. There are only 66 of the "Bones" (from B-One) left, and none are doing what they were designed for (flying low and fast into heavily defended enemy territory to deliver nuclear weapons). But because the B-1Bs are twenty years younger than the B-52s, they were available for duty as much as the B-52s and became particularly popular over Afghanistan, where higher speed (compared to the B-52) enabled one B-1B to cover the entire country. On a slow day, the single B-1B could hustle from one part of the country to deliver a smart bomb or two and then be off to another tense situation on the ground. This is the first sustained use of the B-1B and, by and large, the bomber has performed quite well.

As a result of this, because of the new START nuclear-weapons limitation treaty with Russia, the U.S. Air Force wants to keep 40 B-52s and 20 B-2s for carrying nukes. The B-1Bs will be restricted to just carrying smart bombs, which it has proved very good at over Afghanistan and Iraq. The air force also wants a dozen or so B-52s retained just for smart bombs.

The mystery here is why keep fifty year old B-52s for anything? It's because they are the cheapest to operate and most reliable "bomb truck" the air force has. With a max takeoff weight of 240-250 tons the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow) is basically a large aircraft designed to carry bombs cheaply and efficiently.

The B-52 is the cheapest to operate heavy bomber in the air force, and one of them can cover all of Afghanistan. These B-52s are based on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and from there supported operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In late 2001, ten B-52s dropped a third of the bomb tonnage in Afghanistan. That's a remarkable record for a 60-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 also has a lower accident rate than the B-1 and B-2. Compared to the supersonic B-1 and high-tech B-2, the B-52 is just a flying truck. Thus the B-52, despite its age, was the cheapest, safest, and most reliable way to deliver smart bombs over Afghanistan.

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 909 kg (2000-pound) JDAM (GPS-guided bombs) or a larger number of smaller 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 16 meters (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 gunmen 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.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq the B-1B got to show its capabilities. While flying only five percent of the sorties the B-1B delivered 40 percent of the bombs. The 216 ton aircraft can carry 34 tons of bombs in its three bomb bays. It's a 1970s design that entered service just as the Cold War, which it was designed for, ended.

The B-52 was the principal heavy bomber throughout most of the Cold War (1947-91). The B-52 prototype first flew in 1952. The last one built, a B-52H, was in 1962. The B-52 has seen a lot of action in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, in the Balkans, and over Afghanistan. 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 crew size 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, which has been much modified since they rolled off the assembly line 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. As a result, some B-52s got their JDAM equipment just before the 2001 war in Afghanistan. The B-52 was upgraded to use JDAM before the B-1B because the B-52 is more reliable. In any event, 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 soon became the weapon of choice over Afghanistan, able to hang around for hours and drop one-ton JDAM bombs on demand.

Currently, the Air Force has the capacity to shut down the high-altitude missile 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, even delivering nuclear weapons.

The B-1Bs, designed to replace the B-52 as America's "nuclear bomber" ended up as a bomb truck, with much of its high-tech gear removed or turned off. In that state the B-1B has proved reliable enough to compete with its older, simpler, cheaper, and still vigorous counterpart.




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