The B-52 Stratofortress has been a potent symbol of American power, and it is set to continue for another 30 years.
The B-52 Stratofortress has been flying since the 1950s, and they are set to remain in service until the 2050s when their replacement comes into service. That is an incredible 100-year lifespan for this venerable aircraft. But with the constantly changing face of warfare, the US Air Force is constantly striving to be at the forefront of the cutting-edge of military technology. But how is this old airframe able to remain relevant while so many others have long since been retired?
The B-52 Stratofortress was manufactured between 1952 and 1962 and some 744 of these beasts were produced. Of these, 58 are in service, 18 in reserve, and about 12 in long-term storage. Sometimes they are used as a symbol of American power — and yet at the same time being the opposite of stealthy, they are slow, and they are incredibly vulnerable to modern air defenses. And yet they survive.
Here is what makes the B-52 Stratofortress the tank of the skies.
The B-52 Stratofortress’ payload is the second largest in the United States Air Force. The B-52 has a maximum payload of some 70,000 vs the B-1 Lancer’s maximum of 75,000. The largest strategic bomber in the world is the Russian’s Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack with its massive 88,200 lbs.
The B-52’s massive payload gives it a great deal of flexibility and a range of possible payloads — those payloads don’t always need to be weapons either. Sometimes they can be other things — like drones.
7Low Operation Costs
The B-52 enjoys relatively low operating costs. The cost of maintenance is lower on the B-52 than for other similar aircraft. Often, the operating costs start to rise as the airframe ages and parts start to wear and tear, but the B-52 has maintained low costs throughout its life.
Many a project has seen the ax under the weight of cost overruns and blowouts. But not the B-52!
6. Long Range
The B-52 has a very impressive range. It has a typical combat range of some 8,800 miles while carrying its payload without in-air refueling. That enables it to strike a massive range of targets all around the world and penetrate deep into enemy territory.
This means that often the B-52 doesn’t need to be forward deployed like fighter jets with their limited range. Recent upgrades have also enabled them to carry more weapons internally. That has reduced drag and decreased fuel consumption by 15%, increasing their range.
5. Eight Turbojet Engines
While the largest passenger airliner in the world — the Airbus 380 — has four engines, the B-52 Stratofortress hosts eight. The B-52’s engines are the Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-3 turbofans that replaced an earlier variant.
Currently, the US Airforce is planning to replace these aging engines with a new suite of engines and is planning to announce the winning bidder in May 2021. Currently, General Electric is proposing its CF34-10s and Passport turbofans, while Pratt & Whitney is proposing its PW800 engine, and finally, Rolls Royce is bidding with its F130 engine.
4. Range Of Potential Payloads
While the B-52 can carry thermonuclear weapons, it can also carry a full range of other ordinance and other payloads – giving them a large range of flexibility and making them useful in conventional wars as well.
The first thermonuclear bomb to be dropped from an airplane was by a B-52 Stratofortress. This happened in May 1956 over the Bikini Atoll.
3. Outlive The Rockwell B-1 Lancer
The Rockwell B-1 Lancer was developed in the 1970s and produced in the 1980s. It was originally intended to replace the B-52s. But instead, the American Air Force decided to only buy 100 of them and use them to compliment the B-52s.
The Rockwell B-1 Lancer is expected to retire in 2036 while the B-52s in the 2050s. That would mean that the B-52 will easily outlive its intended replacement.
2. Past, Present, And Future Upgrades
The B-52s have received a whole range of upgrades over their life spans. One of the current plans of the Air Force is to equip the B-52s with defensive laser weapons. If these were to become a reality, they would be able to incinerate attacking air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles. Other proposed upgrades include receiving electronic jamming capabilities.
With regard to upgrades they have actually received, in 2013 the Air Force began to upgrade the whole fleet with a package called Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT). This included new computers, data links, digital workstations for the crew, modems, radios, and more. Weapon upgrades included the 1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade (IWBU). That package enables them more and newer precision-guided missiles and weapons.
1. Recent Missions
Most recently, the US has flown its B-52 in a number of missions in actual strike missions and others in a show of force. Since 2015, the US Air Force has flown the B-52 through the South China Sea as part of the US’s freedom of navigation operations. Additionally, they have been flown near North Korea in response to their nuclear program.
In a combat capacity, their most recent operations were against ISIS as part of Operation Inherent Resolve in 2016. During that operation, the B-52s took over heavy bombing after B-1 Lancers were rotated out. They have also provided some precision strikes and close air support in Afghanistan. Finally, in 2018, they participated in strikes against the Syrian government or forces aligned with them.
In summary, the B-52 Stratofortress has been a potent symbol of American power, and it is set to continue to be that for another 30 years.