NATO’s Most Dangerous Bomber Marks 70 Years Since First Flight: Will the B-52 Stratofortress Make a Century?

Seventy years after its first flight on April 15,1952, the B-52 Stratofortress is still considered the most capable bomber ever to have served in the United States Military or that of any western country, with the aircraft having been produced from 1952 to 1962 and seen extensive improvements to its performance made both during that time and since. As its name implies, the aircraft was considered a successor to the B-29 Superfortress which ravaged the Japanese mainland during the Second World War and destroyed 69 cities in nuclear and incendiary raids before carrying out similar operations in Korea. The B-52 began development less than a year after the end of the Second World War in 1946, and was designed primarily to carry nuclear weapons and if needed employ them against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Although never seeing combat in Europe, the aircraft would see extensive service during the Vietnam War most notably carpet bombing North Vietnamese cities under the Richard Nixon administration during the Linebacker Raids.

While considered sophisticated when it entered service in 1955, in the following decades the aircraft would increasingly be prized for its simplicity in contrast to its successors the B-1B, B-2 and cancelled B-70 which all came to be seen as excessively complex and impractically difficult to operate and maintain. The result is that the B-52, in spite of none having been built for 60 years, will serve in the U.S. Air Force longer than the B-1 or B-2 despite these having entered service in the 1980s and 1990s as intended successors, with the B-52’s higher availability rates, greater ease of maintenance and lower operational costs making it more viable for continued service. 

The B-52 has seen extensive combat service most notably in the Vietnam War, but also in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and has been consistently deployed to major hotspots at times of high tensions from missions near Iran under the Trump administration to deployments aimed at signalling North Korea and contesting Chinese territorial claims in East Asia. While the basic airframe has remained the same, the aircraft has been kept viable by the integration of new engines, sensors and weapons systems, with the bomber expected to be the first in the American fleet to integrate hypersonic weapons. While the bomber is far from survivable operating near enemy fighters or air defences, as the role of bombers has evolved the B-52 has been almost exclusively allocated the role of neutralising targets at standoff ranges with various very long ranged cruise missiles. Similar trends have been seen in foreign bomber programs such as the Russian Tu-22M, Tu-95 and Tu-160M and Chinese H-6 which have all evolved into missile carriers while seldom carrying short ranged gravity bombs. The B-2 is the only exception, with its stealth profile allowing it to potentially survive against moderately defended targets to drop bombs from close ranges, although with it too dating back to the 1990s the viability of the aircraft in this role against newer air defence networks has also been brought to question. 

The B-52 is in future expected to fly alongside the B-21 Raider stealth bomber which will replace the B-1 and B-2 and likely form new bomber units to expand the fleet. The B-1 has already begun to be retired, while the small fleet of 20 B-2s is expected to follow in the 2030s. There remains a significant possibility that the B-52 will fly past 100 years into the second half of the 21st century, although what kind of aircraft will eventually replace it remains uncertain. All B-52s in service are of the B-52H variant, of which 102 were built with service entry beginning in 1961. Improvements to the aircraft and the older B-52G were initially made to compensate for delays to the B-58 supersonic bomber that saw a much smaller production run and was retired less than 10 years after entering service due largely to its high maintenance needs and operational costs.

The B-52’s capabilities are expected to be far in advance of what they are today when the bomber eventually leaves service, and the aircraft is likely to continue to appear consistently in areas of high tensions and gain a new lease of life with the integration of hypersonic weapons. The importance of the role it plays will likely heavily depend on the capabilities of the B-21 being developed to accompany it in service, and particularly whether the B-21 will be able to carry a similar range of advanced standoff weapons and be able to retain high availability rates as the B-1 and B-2 could not. 

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