The B-52 bomber is so huge it takes eight engines to lift it off the ground, along with a pair of outrigger wheels to make sure its wingtips don’t scrape the runway as it takes off. So how is it that this lumbering beast is turning stealthy and disappearing from the Air Force’s Arizona boneyard, where thousands of warplanes go to die?
Fact is, a pair of B-52 Stratofortresses, which came off the assembly line during the Kennedy Administration, have been roused from their well-deserved retirement. The first left Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in 2015, and the second on May 14, to return to active duty, joining other B-52s still in service. Despite their advanced age, B-52s continue to contribute: They’ve recently been dispatched to the Middle East to deter Iran. They’ve been flying out of Guam—within striking distance of China—for more than a decade. They’ve been buzzing the Baltic Sea near Russia as well.
The bombers—just like the Russian Tu-95 bombers probing air space near Alaska in May—prowl the world’s skies, asserting a nation’s interest in what is happening below. They make for a double-edged sword: reassuring to allies but fraught with the possibility that a mistake could lead to war. Just as importantly, the B-52 highlights the continuing and costly U.S. reliance on a nuclear “triad” made up of bombers, and of missiles fired from land and submarines. That Cold War trio is slated to cost $494 billion between 2019 and 2028, within spitting distance of a half-trillion dollars. It’s also 23 percent higher than the $400 billion the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost from 2017 to 2026.
Boeing churned out 744 B-52s at plants in Seattle, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas, over 10 years beginning in 1952. It is an investment that has paid off. The bomber was built with plenty of extra space on board for not-yet-invented weapons and electronics. It wasn’t crammed with gear, like the B-1 and B-2 that followed it, that make modifications complicated and costly. Its bones—the aluminum airframe—were rugged and built to last.
Old B-52 hands were delighted at the second revived B-52’s return to the 307th Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. “Nothing like an old BUFF to put the fear of god into the enemy,” one posted on the unit’s Facebook page (BUFF is the bomber’s polite nickname among those who fly and maintain it, meaning Big Ugly Fat Fellow). “Really loved that bird,” added another. “Happy to see them still in the air keeping us safe.”
While the B-52’s latest re-enlistment says a lot about the durability and moxie of this Boeing behemoth, it also speaks volumes about the hazards of building bespoke gold-plated bombers. In fact, the two bombers built after the B-52—the B-1 and B-2—are going to be sent to the boneyard well before the B-52 finishes its tour of duty. The Air Force decided in 2018 to retire the two newest ones—the 62 B-1s and 20 B-2s
remaining in active service—in the 2030s, nearly a decade earlier than planned. At the same time, it decided to extend the B-52’s life and keep them flying beyond 90 years, even though they’re at least 22 years older
than the B-1s, and 30 years older than the B-2s.
The Air Force built both the B-1, between 1984 and 1988, and B-2, between 1987 and 2000, with supposed cutting-edge technologies that didn’t age well (and they were hyped, even when new). The 100 B-1s boast a swept-wing design. Spreading those wings allows it to take off heavy with weapons and fuel by generating extra lift. When it’s making a bombing run, it sweeps its wings back, allowing it to scream low and fast toward its target. But that design is tough to maintain. It also can be dangerous, as changing a plane’s wingspan from 137 to 79 feet in midflight poses unique challenges. Plus, the B-1’s primary reason for being—nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union—disappeared along with the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago. Since then, per arms-control pacts with Russia, gear that the B-1 needs to carry and launch atomic weapons has been stripped from the aircraft, eliminating its nuclear deterrence capability against atomic-club wanna-bes like Iran and North Korea.
The B-2’s radar-eluding design proved less effective than advertised, and the maintenance it demanded made it too expensive even for the Pentagon. A B-2 gets a $60 million year-long overhaul every seven years, and has to be housed in a climate-controlled hangar for the other six. While the Air Force wanted 132 of the bat-winged planes, it had to settle for 21, at more than $2 billion apiece.
Each of these bombers was like a finely machined box wrench, designed for turning nuts—but only nuts of a single size. In contrast, the B-52 is more like the adjustable wrench down in your basement: cheap and flexible enough to get most jobs done pretty well. But doing things simply is a lost art at the Pentagon, which is seeking $104.3 billion for research next year, more than $10 million an hour, 24/7.
The B-52 tapped to return to the fleet in May, dubbed “Wise Guy,” is to replace a B-52 destroyed in a fiery takeoff accident on Guam in 2016. Built in the early 1960s, Wise Guy had been enjoying its golden years sitting in the warm Arizona sun since leaving its frigid North Dakota base in 2008. The first B-52 that was tapped to return to service in 2015—“Ghost Rider”—replaced a B-52 lost in an electrical fire during routine maintenance in 2014. The return of Ghost Rider to active duty in 2015, and of Wise Guy in May, restores the B-52 fleet to 76 aircraft, the ceiling negotiated with Russia.
It isn’t easy to bring a gargantuan war machine that has been sitting in the desert for a decade, after spending 17,000 hours in the air, back from the dead. Take Wise Guy, for instance. “The jet had cracks in the rear landing gear and was missing two engines,” Master Sgt. Steven Sorge, an Air Force mechanic who helped revive Wise Guy, said in an Air Force release. “It also needed all its fuels cells and hoses replaced, as well as its tires.” While it took only four months of work to get the plane airborne, making it mission-ready will take 550 people two more years of work and cost $30 million, the Air Force estimates.
B-52s had a major role during the Cold War, where they sat on alert around the clock for eight years straight. They also played bit parts in the U.S. wars in Vietnam, Serbia, and post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as playing a key supporting role in the finale of Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic Cold War film). At least one Air Force B-52 aviator has seen his son and grandson fly aboard B-52s.
If you want good news about a bomber, it’s tough to top the BUFF. The Air Force reported last year that it would cost $38.5 billion to keep the newer B-1s and B-2s flying until 2050, but only $22 billion to keep roughly the same number of the much older B-52s airborne. Further, the Air Force projected that $22 billion investment will include new engines that will yield $10 billion in fuel and maintenance savings.
Air Force Magazine detailed the math: the simpler B-52 is able to fly more than the newer bombers, which suffer from what the service calls the “vanishing vendor syndrome” because contractors no longer produce the sophisticated parts the B-1 and B-2 need. B-52s are ready to fly all missions 60 percent of the time, compared to 40 percent for the B-1s and 35 percent for the B-2s. The B-52 costs about $70,000 per hour to fly, half that of the B-2.
As the B-1s and B-2s are sent out to pasture, the Air Force wants to buy at least 100 B-21 Raider bombers to replace them. The service’s projected price tag of $55 billion—$550 million apiece—is as squishy as the Air Force claim of a $500 million price tag on the B-2 when it first rolled off the assembly line in California in 1988.
And the secrecy surrounding the B-21 mirrors that of the B-2 when it was being built. The Air Force has refused to say how much it is paying Northrop Grumman under a 2015 contract to develop the B-21. The Government Accountability Office noted last month that its own assessment of how much major weapons cost “importantly … excluded classified programs, such as the Air Force’s new B-21 Raider program.” (Here’s a tip based on 40 years of reporting on Pentagon spending: cost overruns tend to stay secret, while word of staying within budget generally becomes public).
Of course, in a world where Amazon is exploring delivering goods to your doorstep by drone, the need for a manned penetrating bomber becomes increasingly hard to justify. A bomber drone could fly into harm’s way without risking the life of the crew. Likewise, long-range nuclear-tipped missiles have enable the B-52 to be a vital part of the nation’s deterrence force without sending its five-member crew deep into enemy air defenses. There’s no reason new bombers—or retooled older ones, for that matter—couldn’t do the same thing at a far lower cost than the B-21.
Besides, those two “new” B-52 bombers recently returned to flight come from a big family. There are lots more, five miles south of Tucson, waiting in the wings.
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