Warplanes: B-52 Down

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July 22, 2008: On July 20th, a B-52 bomber crashed off the Pacific island of Guam. It was carrying a crew of six. Three crew were found dead in the water, and the search is on for the other three. The plane crashed on takeoff, typically one of the more dangerous phases of a flight. The plane was reported as on its way to perform a flyover for a parade (celebrating the anniversary of Guam's liberation from Japanese occupation). Such ceremonial duties are carried out during mandatory flights required in order to keep the crew qualified. B-52s are stationed in Guam for training in naval operations, and to provide quick reinforcement for any hot spot in that third of the planet. B-52s are a very safe aircraft, with an enviable record over its half century of use. The B-52, despite the higher cost of maintaining such an old aircraft (the current force of 93 B-52Hs were built in the early 1960s), the B-52 is less expensive to operate than more modern bombers.

B-52s are not only cheaper to maintain than B-1Bs and B-2s, they have a higher availability rate (65 percent), than the B-1B. As a result, the air force wants to keep 76 B-52s in service (despite a Congressional mandate to reduce that number to 56.) With the development of GPS guided bombs (JDAM), heavy bombers have become the most cost-effective way to deliver support to ground forces. The B-52 is the cheapest American heavy bomber to operate.

In the last fifty years, the air force has developed six heavy bombers (the 240 ton B-52 in 1955, the 74 ton B-58 in 1960, the 47 ton FB-111 in 1969, the 260 ton B-70 in the 1960s, the 236 ton B-1 in 1985, and the 181 ton B-2 in 1992.) All of these were developed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons (bombs or missiles), but have proved more useful dropping non-nuclear bombs. Only the B-70 was cancelled before being deployed.

The well maintained B-52s are quite sturdy and have, on average, only 16,000 flying hours on them. The air force estimates that the B-52s won't become un-maintainable until they reach 28,000 flight hours. However, if the crash is found to be the result of some age-related structural problem, then the cost of maintaining B-52s will jump (to pay for expensive inspections and modifications.)

The B-1 and B-2 were meant to provide a high tech replacement for the B-52, but the end of the Cold War made that impractical. The kinds of anti-aircraft threats the B-1 and B-2 were designed to deal with never materialized. This left the B-52 as the most cost effective way to deliver bombs. The B-1s and B-2s are getting some of the same weapons carrying and communications upgrades as the B-52, if only because these more modern aircraft provide an expensive backup for the B-52.

The B-1B and B-2 are more expensive to operate because they haul around a lot of gear that is not needed for the current counter-terror operations. The B-1B can travel at high speed and very low altitude, to evade enemy air defenses. The B-2 is very difficult to detect on radar, but this ability is achieved with some expensive to maintain design features. Back in the 1950s, when the B-52 was designed, air warfare was a lot simpler, and so was the BUFF (Big, Ugly, Fat Fella, as the B-52 has long been known.) There are still potential enemies out there with Cold War grade air defenses, and the B-1s and B-2s are maintained to deal with that eventuality.

B-52s often go to Guam to train for maritime operations. This has been going on for several decades now, using a special version (AGM-84D) of the Harpoon anti-ship missile. B-52s also train delivering naval mines by air. B-52s have also been equipped with Sniper targeting pods, enabling them to do reconnaissance work as well.

 


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