The Incredible 50-year-old Plane on the Front Lines of the North Korea Standoff
In 1964, Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Love the Bomb burst into the cerulean with the force of a surface-to-air missile. Considered one of the greatest political satires ever made, the film centers around an unhinged Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) general, Jack D. Ripper, who sends his wing of Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers to nuke the Soviet Union, and the frantic effort to recall them before they can deliver their thermonuclear payload. Said effort fails. Cue mushroom clouds and the WWII English songbird Vera Lynn singing, “We’ll meet again.”
“Released at the height of the Cold War, not long after the Cuban missile crisis, before the escalation in Vietnam,” Fred Kaplan wrote in the New York Times in 2004, “Dr. Strangelove dared to suggest—with yucks!—that our top generals might be bonkers, and that our well-developed system for preserving the peace was in fact a doomsday machine.”
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At the time of the film, the country’s relatively young armada of 700-odd B-52s were the fulcrum of that doomsday machine. SAC kept one third of the fleet on quick reaction ground alert, ready to fly to designated targets within the USSR within 15 minutes. During times of increased tension, as during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a number of other Stratofortresses were on airborne alert, ready to launch an immediate retaliatory blow against the USSR if necessary, like Ripper’s bomber wing in Strangelove.
Fast forward 50 years to the current nuclear stand-off with North Korea. As Kim Jong Un has upped his nuclear game, speculation has swirled that the Pentagon is considering sending some of its B-52s to reprise their Cold War role by placing them back on quick-reaction ground alert, loaded and ready to fly with crews in running range of their aircraft.
That order has not been given, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein emphasized in October, after a tour he conducted of his Barksdale Air Force Base fleet of BUFFs (short for Big Ugly Fat Fellas or Big Ugly Fat Fuckers, depending on your French), as the lumbering swept-wing aircraft are known. The Air Force did note that the bases’ alert facility was being updated in case the order does come down from Air Force Global Strike Command.
Meanwhile, in a conspicuous show of force seemingly designed to irk the North Korean leader, last week the Air Force deployed six nuclear-capable B-52Hs to Andersen Air Base in Guam—the same base from which earlier incarnation BUFFs flew bombing missions against North Vietnam 50 years ago. According to the Air Force, the surprise move was part of the U.S. military’s effort to maintain “a continuous bomber presence in the Pacific.” At the same time, other B-52Hs based in Qatar armed with conventional laser-guided bombs are flying troop control missions against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Yet what is truly extraordinary about this spectacle of bomber power is that the Strangelove-era aircraft are flying at all, no less still on the front lines of American defense. To virtually everyone’s surprise, the Air Force’s workhorse bomber of the 1960s has turned out to be one of the most durable and versatile aircraft ever designed. At the same time, some military experts say, the fact that the B-52 is still needed to fill out the Air Force’s bomber line-up highlights the Pentagon’s byzantine and defective system for advanced weapons procurement. If the Air Force still has need of a Cold War-era bomber to fill out its line-up against North Korea, or any another adversary, they say, then it must be doing something wrong.
“Personally speaking, I don’t think that the alert will take actually place,” says Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and militay analyst at Brookings Institution. “The real news here,” O’Hanlon emphasizes, “is that an aircraft which first entered active service nearly three quarters of a century ago is still flying, as well as playing a significant role in U.S. defense, even if its mission is different from the one it was designed for. I just think that’s stunning.”
In November 1945, three months after the end of World War II, the Pentagon issued performance characteristics for a new, five-crew strategic bomber capable of flying long enough distances that it would not have to rely on intermediate-range bases controlled by other countries. The projected aircraft, which eventually became the B-52, would complement the Air Force’s other new long-range bomber, the B-47 strategic turbojet. The B-47 had a range of 4,000 miles, roughly the distance for a bomber to fly one way from the U.S. to Russia. The B-52’s projected range of 8,800 miles would allow a bomber to perform the same mission and return without refueling.
Overseeing the process was Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development Curtis LeMay. Then the country’s most famous—or infamous, depending on how one looked at it—air general, “Iron Ass” LeMay, as the no-nonsense, cigar-chomping general was known to his men, was perhaps best known for setting Tokyo on fire with his incendiary-laden B-29s at the end of the World War II. He was also the most prominent member of the so-called Bomber Mafia, a group of military men who believed that long range heavy bombers in sufficient numbers were capable of winning wars, with the infantry and navy playing supporting roles—a concept also known as strategic air power.
LeMay, who also won plaudits for overseeing the 1947 Berlin Airlift, was intent on carrying the strategic air power mantra forward into the new era of nuclear war and confrontation with the Soviet Union. He expected the new super-bomber under development, the B-52, as well as its sister craft, the B-47, to be the vessels for realizing that vision. As deputy Air Force chief, he expedited the process for procuring and manufacturing the B-52, including awarding the contract to build the aircraft to Boeing.
Though hardly the most elegant aircraft ever designed—hence its nickname—the powerful eight turbojet engine, 160-foot-long, 185 foot wide (same as a football field) behemoth of the air, which featured the same swept wing design as its sleeker, less powerful sister, the B-47, was the stuff of a long distance bombardier’s—or bomber general’s—dream.
In 1948, LeMay’s dream of heading the elite strike force of the nuclear age came true when he became commander of the newly created Strategic Air Command (SAC), the Air Force bomber command responsible for executing the Eisenhower administration’s new defense policy of massive retaliation. According to that policy, the Soviet Union—which had also acquired its own smaller, but potent nuclear arsenal—would be deterred from using it by the threat of an all-out nuclear response by the U.S. spearheaded by SAC’s growing armada of strategic bombers.
In 1952, the first B-52 flew its first successful test mission. In 1954, the first three combat-ready B-52s were delivered to SAC. The next year, SAC had 13 more. By 1957, when LeMay left SAC to become Air Force vice chief of staff, SAC employed nearly a quarter of a million men and its hangars contained over 2,000 strategic aircraft, including over 700 B-52s.
That year, before LeMay left SAC for Washington, Robert Sprague, a member of a top secret civilian panel, told the general that his bomber fleet was vulnerable to attack by Moscow. According to Kaplan, who interviewed Sprague, the air warrior wasn’t bothered.
“If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack, I am going to knock the shit out of them,” LeMay told the astonished Sprague. “But general,” the latter interjected, “that is not national policy.”
“I don’t care,” LeMay calmly retorted, “That’s my policy.”
As confident as LeMay was of his B-52s to knock the shit out of the Russians, if called to do so, he did not expect them to be able to do so forever. So, in 1957, before he left SAC, he put the wheels in motion for a follow-on bomber, the B-70. A supersonic aircraft, the B-70 was intended at once to succeed the B-52 and ensure the future of strategic air power.
But the new president, John F. Kennedy, and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, disapproved of LeMay’s bombsight view of the world. With Kennedy’s backing, the practical-minded defense secretary cancelled the B-70, an aircraft of questionable airworthiness—nearly instigating a constitutional crisis in the process. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Kennedy came to blows again with his bomber-minded Air Force chief when LeMay’s eagerness to close with the Soviet adversary led him to argue for an air strike against Cuba.
In 1963, the year of Kennedy’s assassination, the Air Force took delivery of the last 14 B-52s ever produced. At the time, the bombers were expected to last another 15 or 20 years at the maximum, the norm for a modern aircraft. In the meantime, the atomic airplane, another would-be follow-on to the B-52 that had also proved to be an expensive boondoggle, was also cancelled.
Two years later, LeMay, whose love for The Bomb had also worried Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, was forced to retire, distressed that he had not been able to ensure a successor for his aging, swept-wing progeny. “The B-52 is going to fall apart on us before we even get a replacement,” he lamented in one of his last appearances before Congress in March, 1965.
Thanks to its large, rugged airframe, the B-52 proved sturdier and more flexible than anyone, including LeMay, could have imagined. Beginning in 1965, the Air Force made numerous improvements to the aircraft—including re-engining the aircraft, installing advanced avionics, as well as increasing its payload capacity—that extended its service life practically to the point of aerial immortality.
In spite of its size, the hulking aircraft turned out to be remarkably agile. After the increasing sophistication of Soviet anti-aircraft defenses induced the Air Force to take the B-52 down from stratospheric heights in the mid-1960s, the bomber readily adapted to its revised role as a low-penetration bomber. Flying at speeds over 400 miles per hour at an altitude of just over 500 feet, it could evade radar and fly along the contours of the ground to deliver its weapons.
In the meantime, thanks to so-called Big Belly modifications that increased the B-52’s bombing capability, the plane played a major role in the air war over both North and South Vietnam. In the north, the planes participated in a series of pulverizing raids against the cities of Hanoi and Haipong. The raids, the first and only instance in which the Stratofortresses engaged in active aerial combat, were not without cost: Some two dozen of the surviving bombers were shot down, with a loss of several dozen crewmen killed or captured. Nevertheless, the sorties, ordered by President Richard Nixon, were unquestionably a factor in inducing the North Vietnamese to come to the negotiating table in Paris in January, 1973.
Meanwhile, in the south, other B-52s carried out massive carpet-bombing raids, effectively blurring the line between conventional and nuclear warfare. An old-fashioned, World War II-style box formation of six B-52s dropping their bombs from 30,000 feet, it was found, could destroy almost everything within an area approximately five-eighths of a mile wide by two miles long, Viet Cong included—and causing about the same damage as a tactical nuclear weapon. The truth of the matter was that even though the B-52s had reached the end of their shelf life, no other aircraft could wreak as much destruction as a Stratofortress, whether it carried conventional or nuclear weapons.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the B-52s reverted to their prior role as part of the third leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, alongside America’s land-based ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The remaining 200 or so B-52s were supposed to be replaced by the B-1 supersonic bomber in the 1980s. However once again the Pentagon’s plan for a successor aircraft was undone because of the exorbitant cost of its replacement. So instead of the originally envisioned fleet of several hundred B-1s, only a hundred were built, enough to supplant some but not all of the surviving B-52s. Meanwhile, the Stratofortresses were modified to carry cruise nuclear missiles, as well as other “stand-off” ordnance which could be fired at a faraway target while the aircraft “stood off” from their terrestrial objectives.
Finally, in September 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to an abrupt end more than a third of a century after the B-52s had entered active service, President George Bush ordered the extant B-52s as well as its sister B-1s to stand down from quick reaction alert.
But there was a new challenge: After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the venerable aircraft was once again pressed into service in a tactical role as part of Operation Desert Storm. B-52s flew more than 1,600 sorties and delivered 40 percent of the total ordnance dropped by coalition forces during the short, decisive conflict. The low-level strikes, in which hundreds of 750-pound “daisy cutter” bombs were dropped over small areas, similar to what happened in Vietnam, had a major demoralizing effect on Iraqi troops. After the initial strikes, the terrifying sight and sound of a flock of B-52s approaching was sufficient to induce thousands of Iraqi soldiers to surrender.
In 1996 the durable, multi-modified aircraft successfully participated in Operation Desert Strike against Iraq again, destroying Baghdad power stations and communication facilities with cruise missiles during a record 34-hour, 16,000-mile round trip from Andersen Air Force base in Guam—the longest distance ever flown for a combat mission.
Three years later, B-52s took part in the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, helping to destroy bridges and industrial plants and other infrastructure sites, while also adding to the considerable military and civilian casualties on the ground.
In 2001, the hardy bombers, then approaching 50 years of operations, continued to outdo themselves, contributing to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan through the use of precision-guided munitions, a task previously reserved for fighter aircraft. Two years later, the B-52s again appeared in the skies over Baghdad, firing hundreds of missiles at Saddam’s infrastructure, and helping to bring the second Gulf war to a thunderous close—at least for a while.
In the meantime, once again, the cost-related delay in getting the designated successor bomber craft onto full production—in this case, the B-21 Long Range stealth bomber—forced the Air Force to continue to use its aging B-52s. Amazingly, current plans are for the remaining Stratofortresses to serve into the 2040s, or nearly a century after they were rolled out. Meanwhile, at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where most of the 75 remaining bombers are based, some B-52 pilots are grandsons of LeMay’s original SAC men.
Almost no one disagrees that the B-52 is a workhorse of a plane. But what military strategists don’t agree on is whether the B-52 should keep on flying.
“Why not?” asks O’Hanlon. “The economics have always made sense to keep the B-52 in the air, with suitable re-engining and re-winging and so on over the years. Of course, by now it has become something of a flying museum of the evolution of air power, but as long as it is able to perform the missions it is assigned to, so what?”
Rebecca Grant, president of the defense research company IRIS Independent Research, agrees, pointing to the B-52’s unique combination of ruggedness and versatility. “It can attack terrorists on hillsides, enemy ships at sea, fielded forces or fixed and mobile, high-value sites,” she says. “To me the ultimate message of the B-52 story is that it is ready for conventional and nuclear missions anytime.”
Or as Colonel Hodge of the Air Force’s Pacific Command, which now includes the six B-52s which arrived in Guam last week, proudly puts it, “For more than 50 years B-52s Stratofortresses along with their highly qualified air crew and maintainers, have been the backbone of the manned strategic bomber force for the United States. They have been updated with modern technology that will allow them to continue serving into the 21st century as an important element of our nation’s defense.”
Matthew Bunn, a nuclear and energy analyst at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is also an admirer of the B-52. But, he cautions, “We are very lucky that we made it through the period when we had [B-52s] in the air armed with nuclear weapons without a truly catastrophic accident.” Bunn is referring to disasters like the then hushed-up January 1961 incident in which a B-52 got into trouble over South Carolina, went into a tailspin and accidentally dropped its two hydrogen bombs over North Carolina. One of the bombs, which fell into a field—the other landed in a tree—came within one flipped switch of detonating.
A former adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology, Bunn believes putting the B-52s back on alert because of the new North Korean crisis would be unwise. “There is no need to return bombers to 24-hour alert,” he says, “which is only relevant if you think there is about to be a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack. There are much more urgent priorities—both military and civilian—for the dollars that would cost, and 24-hour alerts carry some of their own risks as well.”
But there is another red flag here, notes Bunn—the fact that the Air Force has been incapable of developing a replacement in sufficient quantity to completely replace the aging complement of B-52s. “The history of current strategic bomber development suggests that the U.S. system for developing new bombers is broken,” he says. “The system tries to add so many features that the bombers become so expensive and delayed that we wind up buying only a few of them. We ended up only using the B-1B as a nuclear bomber for a short time—it’s now dedicated only to non-nuclear missions—and we’ve got only 20s of the B-2s, which became so expensive that Congress didn’t want to keep funding them.”
Robert Haffa, a former Air Force colonel and current private consultant, says it’s time for the B-52s to go. “The re-emergence of great powers with sophisticated air defenses—China, Iran, Russia—now call for the B-52’s retirement and its replacement with a stealthy, long-range platform capable of holding a range of targets at risk in contested airspace,” which the slower, subsonic, easy-to-track BUFFS can not.
As far as what Haffa thinks LeMay would say about the immortal life of the B-52 if he were alive, the retired colonel guesses a part of him would be proud that the aircraft lasted as long as it has. But, Haffa says, “I expect he would also be horrified that the Air Force has failed to modernize its long-range bomber fleet to the point where the B-52 is still a centerpiece after all these years.”
Grant agrees: “He would demand that we build and buy B-21s faster.”
One point on which all the experts agree is that the uncannily long-lived aircraft, arguably the most successful military aircraft ever built, was one of the best purchases Uncle Sam has made.
“Divide the B-52’s development and test cost by ordnance dropped and hours providing deterrence across seven decades,” Grant declares, “and it may be the best air power investment ever.”
“I don’t give Curtis LeMay credit for very much,” says O’Hanlon. “His legacy was mostly a dangerous one. But give LeMay credit where it is due. He certainly bequeathed one hell of a plane.”
via POLITICO Magazine
January 21, 2018 at 11:35AM