This Friday marks the anniversary of the day in 1946 when the Air Force announced that Boeing BA had won the competition to build the plane that would become the B-52 Stratofortress.
That event unfolded so long ago that the Air Force was not yet an independent service, and the plane Boeing initially proposed was propeller-driven. It isn’t likely anybody at the time imagined the new bomber would become the most iconic military aircraft in history, and still be operating two decades into the 21st century.
In fact, if the Air Force sticks with current plans, the B-52 will operate through 2050, making it the first jet, and maybe the only jet, to stay in continuous operation for a hundred years. The plan is to retire bombers that debuted decades later before the B-52 flies its last mission, and buy a stealthy new strike aircraft designated the B-21 to populate a heavy bomber force ultimately consisting of 220 planes (there are 157 today).
Some facets of the Air Force’s “Bomber Vector” might change. Maybe the B-1 and B-2 bombers will stick around longer than expected. Maybe the B-52 won’t get new engines as presently planned. But one thing is certain: the B-52 will be with us through mid-century, making it the longest-lived combat system in an era supposedly characterized by rapid technological change.
What accounts for the B-52’s longevity? Obviously, the Air Force’s willingness to continuously improve an airframe that was blessed with a durable design at its inception was crucial. But there is a lot more to the B-52 story. Here are five reasons why the B-52 bomber is destined to outlive all of the engineers who designed it, and most of the pilots who flew it.
Relevancy. The B-52 was conceived in the immediate aftermath of a successful strategic bombing campaign against Japan. Air Force planners wanted a long-range strike aircraft that wouldn’t require forward bases to accomplish their missions the way B-29s had needed bases in the Mariana Islands. Today, a century later, U.S. military planners are again focused on the vast distances of the Pacific and the scarcity of available bases in its western reaches, because China is the main concern driving our national defense strategy.
The design of the B-52 gradually evolved during its early design phase into a swept-wing aircraft with eight jet engines that could fly many thousands of miles without refueling. Its range today is stated at 8,800 miles when cruising at 525 miles per hour with a 35-ton bombload, but it can be refueled in the air to fly much farther. Equipped with cruise missiles and other standoff munitions, it can attack targets anywhere in the world quickly from bases in the U.S. That’s what makes long-range bombers different from any other combat system in the joint force.
Versatility. But the B-52 doesn’t just have long legs and a large payload. Unlike the B-1 Lancer, a supersonic bomber that first flew in 1974, the B-52 can perform nuclear deterrence missions. And unlike the B-2 Spirit that first flew in 1989, the B-52 exists in sufficient numbers to sustain conventional combat missions indefinitely against remote adversaries (there are only 20 B-2s in the fleet).
Long-range strike missions, nuclear or conventional, are just the beginning. B-52 crews demonstrated in Afghanistan that they could provide close air support to troops on the ground using a variety of precision-guided munitions. They also can accomplish maritime surveillance and sea control over vast areas, laying mines if necessary, with two bombers covering 140,000 square miles of ocean in two hours. And their ability to remain airborne for many hours makes them candidates for conducting reconnaissance or electronic jamming in support of other forces.
Survivability. Nobody will ever accuse the B-52 bomber of being stealthy. Its design predated the advent of low-observable technology. However, the bomber has been equipped with electronic countermeasures, towed decoys and various other aids designed to foil the efforts of adversaries to target it. The Air Force stopped assigning nuclear gravity bombs to the B-52 in 2010, recognizing that its utility in the deterrence mission depended on attacking targets with cruise missiles from beyond the range of enemy defenses.
The Air Force currently plans to equip the B-52 with a very stealthy Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon to be built by Raytheon Technologies RTX that will ease the challenge of penetrating defenses in order to hold strategic targets at risk. With a range of 1,500 miles, LRSO will keep B-52 survivable in the nuclear deterrence mission for decades to come. The same weapon may be adapted for use in conventional (non-nuclear) missions if other standoff weapons prove inadequate to safely attack the full array of potential targets presented by enemies in the future.
Availability. One reason the Air Force intends to keep flying the B-52 through 2050 is that on any given day, most of the Stratofortresses in the fleet are ready for combat on short notice. In 2019, the mission-capable rate for the B-52 was 66%, significantly better than the B-2 bomber’s 60% rate and substantially better than the B-1 bomber’s 46% rate. The higher availability rate coupled with the larger number of B-52s in the current force means that on many days, most of the long-range strike aircraft available for combat are B-52s.
This situation is not going to change. Air Force planners have been unhappy with some features of the B-1 bomber since it first joined the force, most notably its electronic architecture for defending the aircraft and conducting strike missions. The B-2 is by far the stealthiest bomber in the force, but the combination of small numbers and complex maintenance procedures required to preserve its low-observable features is a challenge to readiness. The Air Force has made major strides in bolstering the mission-capable rate of B-1 and B-2, but neither plane is likely to ever surpass the readiness for combat of the B-52.
Affordability. Compared with the cost of operating and sustaining other heavy bombers, the B-52 is not particularly expensive. As fellow Forbes contributor David Axe observedin a May 22 commentary, “The B-52 is economical. It costs around $70,000 to fly a B-52 for one hour. That’s roughly the same as what a B-1 costs for an hour of flight, and half what a B-2 costs.” Axe anticipates the operating cost of the B-52 will fall as it is equipped with new, more fuel-efficient engines in the future.
However, there is no guarantee the planes will be reengined. This possibility has come up every decade since the current Pratt & Whitney T33 turbofans debuted on the “H” variant of the B-52 in 1961. Somehow, the Air Force never gets around to buying new engines. Given the many stresses afflicting the federal budget, today’s reengining effort could go the way of previous initiatives. Fuel costs do not look to be a major driver of modernization decisions going forward.
Either way, though, the B-52 is certain to remain in the heavy bomber fleet even as other, newer bombers head for the boneyard. After all these years, the Air Force still can’t do without it.