v1.0.1 / 2 of 2 / 01 jul 03 / greg goebel / public domain
* SAC obtained the B-52 as a strategic nuclear weapon, and it still retains that role to this day, over 50 years after its first flight. Of course, it has never used such weapons in anger, but it has racked up an impressive combat record using conventional weapons.
The B-52 first went to war in Vietnam, where its awesome firepower intimidated the enemy. After Vietnam, the B-52 went back to peacetime alert for almost 20 years. It would make up for the long quiet time beginning in the 1990s, when it became a weapon of choice for the US in the untidy little conflicts that followed the end of the Cold War.
* Although the primary mission of the B-52 was nuclear strike, it was also capable of conducting missions with conventional high-explosive bombs. In 1964, the Air Force decided to improve the B-52F's conventional bombing capability by modifying it to carry 12 standard 340 kilogram (750 pound) bombs on multiple ejector racks fitted to each Hound Dog pylon, along with the existing conventional warload of 27 bombs in the bombbay, for a total of 51 bombs.
The initial "South Bay" conventional bombing upgrade program was completed in 1964, with 28 B-52Fs refitted. It was followed by the similar "Sun Bath" program in 1965, which performed the upgrade on 46 more. The Sun Bath program was driven by immediate necessity, since the B-52F was now going into war in Southeast Asia.
* In response to attacks by Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communist) guerrillas on US forces in South Vietnam in early 1965, the US conducted a series of limited strikes on North Vietnam, codenamed FLAMING DART. A decision was made in February to transfer 30 B-52Fs to Anderson AFB on Guam, with 32 Boeing KC-135 tankers sent to Kadena AFB on Okinawa. From Kadena, the KC-135s would be able to meet the B-52s midway on strikes into Southeast Asia.
The bombers were held in reserve for several months while the politicians and the brass figured out what they wanted to do with them. The US State Department didn't want to use them against North Vietnam, as they regarded such a step as a major escalation of the conflict. There was also a worry that the loss of a B-52 from North Vienamese air defenses would be a serious embarrassment for the United States. It also might persuade the American public that the "limited war" was spiraling out of control, though in fact it was.
However, Army General William Westmoreland, the theater commander in South Vietnam, wanted to use B-52s immediately for carpet-bombing Viet Cong enclaves in South Vietnam. SAC didn't want to go along, and in fact was opposed to the use of their precious B-52s in the tactical role in the first place. SAC was born and bred for the strategic mission and diverting B-52s to support a brushfire war in the Far East was an irritating distraction.
Westmoreland persisted and finally got his way. 46 more B-52Fs were transferred to Anderson in June 1965, with these aircraft upgraded by the Sun Bath program in great haste. The first B-52 combat mission in Southeast Asia, codenamed "Arc Light", took place on 18 June 1965.
27 B-52Fs left Anderson to perform a tactical strike on a concentration of Viet Cong forces north of Saigon. The mission was a disaster. Two B-52Fs collided in midair, killing eight of the twelve crewmen, and technical problems forced one Buff to return to base. The enemy had already left the area by the time the survivors dropped their bombs.
That was the only raid conducted in June. Five more Arc Light raids, totalling 140 B-52F sorties, were conducted in July 1965, and five more, totalling 165 sorties, took place in August. Although no B-52s were lost in these ten actions, the Buffs were still ineffective. One of the problems was that Arc Lights had to be approved by the White House. By the time a request had been sent from the tactical commander back to Washington DC, run through the approval process, then passed back to Anderson for execution, the enemy had usually moved on.
By late August, decision-making authority for Arc Lights had been moved down slightly, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which simplified that issue a bit. More importantly, the Air Force had revised their tactics. Although large raids were still conducted with 30 or so Buffs, the tendency was now to commit them in smaller numbers, eventually settling on three as more or less the norm, and conduct raids on multiple locations simultaneously.
The B-52s also began to expand their area of operation, performing raids into Laos to pound the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which the enemy used to supply the war in South Vietnam. The first raid on Laos took place on 12 December 1965, with the number of strikes rising from that time. The raids were authorized by the US ambassador to Laos, William H. Sullivan, who became so fond of B-52 strikes that he acquired the nickname of "Arc Light Sullivan".
The raids were supposed to be secret, and in fact the government of Laos was neither told of the initial raids in advance, nor informed of them after they happened. The truth leaked out quickly. Too many people were involved and the effects of the raids were hard to conceal, to put it mildly. However, the war in Laos remained a shadowy affair at the time, and still remains shadowy decades later.
The B-52Fs settled into a routine of conducting about 300 sorties a month. They were given a new paint scheme, with the white anti-flash paint on the undersurfaces repainted black to reduce visibility in night strikes. The natural-metal finish on the upper surfaces was retained. This was the first step towards the extinction of the pristine silver-and-white colors that had characterized the Buff in its first decade of SAC service.
The pattern of B-52 activities for most of the war had been set. The B-52 became a jungle fighter, dumping fire on enemy concentrations in the field. The Buffs did range into the southern region of North Vietnam, just above the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South and North Vietnam, though the Air Force became more skittish about such actions when the enemy moved SAMs into the area. The North Vietnamese really wanted to shoot down a B-52, as it would be a major propaganda victory.
With the B-52s staying south, the "Downtown" areas around Hanoi and Haiphong were the turf of the Air Force's strike fighters, such as the Republic F-105 Thunderchief and later the F-4 Phantom, under the ROLLING THUNDER campaign. In other words, the Air Force was using tactical aircraft in a strategic role, and strategic aircraft in a tactical role.
* The B-52F remained in combat service in Southeast Asia for less than a year, being replaced in March 1966 by the B-52D, which had been optimized for the role. Beginning in late 1965, all B-52Ds had been given the "high density bombing (HDB)" or "Big Belly" upgrade, which modified the bombbay to carry 84 225 kilogram (500 pound) or 42 340 kilogram (750 pound) bombs in the bombbay. The upgraded B-52Ds could also carry 24 340 kilogram bombs on the pylons, for a total maximum warload of an astounding 27,200 kilograms (60,000 pounds) of conventional bombs.
The B-52Ds also sported a new paint scheme, with the black underside as used on the B-52F, and the top surfaces painted in a jungle camouflage scheme with tan and two shades of green. About 42 B-52s were initially committed to the war, the number gradually rising to twice that number, with crews serving six-month combat tours. Aircrews from other B-52 variants were included in the rotation to make sure everyone got their fair share of combat.
The effectiveness of the B-52s was enhanced by the introduction of the "Combat Skyspot" bombing system, which greatly improved the accuracy of strikes. The B-52's own BNS was not very useful in Vietnam, since the targets were generally featureless jungle with little distinctive terrain or structures to mark them. Combat Skyspot involved the siting of a network of ground stations with AN/MSQ-77 radar across the country. The ground stations would track them bombers, guide them to the precise target, and tell the crews when to release their warloads. Combat Skyspot allowed the B-52Ds to be used in battle areas where friendly forces were present, with greatly reduced risk of friendly-fire casualties.
Another improvement was the deployment of B-52s to U Tapao Royal Thai Air Base, the first bombers arriving on 10 April 1967. U Tapao meant a much shorter trip to the target area and back, and no need for tanker support except for backup. Initially U Tapao was used as a forward base. Bombers would perform a raid from Anderson to land at U Tapao, conduct eight more raids out of Thailand, and then perform a final raid that would end back at Anderson. At that time, U Tapao lacked the facilities for really extensive service on the B-52s, and so any serious work had to be performed back at Anderson.
The B-52D also received new upgrades to improve its combat effectiveness, most significantly with the "Rivet Rambler" program, which provided an improved ECM suite and was conducted from 1967 through 1969. Rivet Rambler, more officially referred to as the "Phase V ECM Fit", fitted the B-52Ds with the following gear:
* The Buff gradually became a weapon of choice in the war, providing a form of "flying artillery" that could dump overwhelming firepower on enemy concentrations. The B-52 made a profound impression on the enemy. General Westmoreland commented: "We know, from talking to prisoners and defectors, that the enemy troops fear B-52s, tactical air, artillery, and armor ... in that order."
Three B-52s could cut a swath miles long through the jungle, with the aircraft flying so high that the enemy had no idea they were under attack until the bombs began to hit. The shock of such concentrated high explosive was tremendous, with tales of scouts on the ground finding entire enemy units dead, without a mark on them, simply killed by concussion. Survivors of such attacks were demoralized or shellshocked.
The Buff would also ultimately take on the jungle tunnel complexes that frustrated the Americans for so long, pounding them with heavy bombs fitted with delayed action fuzes. The bombs would bury themselves deeply into the ground and then detonate, caving in the tunnels.
However, the B-52 itself could not really do much to change the course of the war, since the Johnson Administration, hobbled by fears of a "wider war", failed to devise any effective military and political strategy to deal with the insurgency in Vietnam. The B-52 was devastating when targets could be found, but in many cases the enemy was elusive and all the bombers accomplished was to level stretches of jungle and kill lots of monkeys.
It has been debated ever since whether there was any rational way to win the conflict. Optimists claim the often absurd "rules of engagement" for attacks on the enemy, imposed from the top by US President Johnson and his defense secretary Robert S. MacNamara, crippled the ability of US forces to fight. The Johnson Administration tried to fine-tune the war, selectively increasing the pressure to try to force the North Vietnamese to negotiate, while avoiding any major escalation.
The result was clumsy micro-management directly from the White House, aggravated by MacNamara's intellectual contempt for the generals who reported to him, and Johnson's angry refusal to listen to bad news. The ROLLING THUNDER campaign was a particularly vivid example of this policy, with American strike pilots seriously hobbled on what they could attack, and the strikes conducted in a sporadic and ineffective fashion until the Johnson Administration gave up on them in the fall of 1968, just ahead of presidential elections.
Pessimists point out the clear historical evidence, with the American Revolution as an example with strong parallels and very close to home, that it is very hard for a foreign power to deal with an insurgency in a distant country. The matter is now academic, though the military did learn many hard lessons that they would put to good use later.
* One of the most important actions of the B-52 in the Vietnam War was during the siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968. The North Vietnamese surrounded an isolated US Marine outpost there and began conducting a methodical siege, building trenchworks that crept closer to the outpost while the two sides traded fire.
Concentrated bombardments by B-52s, dropped with precision just outside the perimeter of the outpost, cratered out the North Vietnamese entrenchments and inflicted heavy casualties, forcing them to give up the siege. 2,548 B-52 sorties were flown under the appropriately-named OPERATION NIAGARA in support of the defense of Khe Sanh, dropping a total of 54,129 tonnes (59,542 tons) of bombs.
Raids were not only flown out of Anderson and U Tapao, but from Kadena in Okinawa, where B-52Ds had been sent to counter aggressive North Korean moves. The fact that Kadena was performing raids on Southeast Asia was kept secret in order to avoid inflaming Japanese public opinion. The Japanese had been on the receiving end of American heavy bomber strikes only a few decades before, and it took no great wisdom to realize they would find even passive involvement in such activities very disagreeable.
While the bombers were formally restricted from dropping their bombs any closer than a kilometer from the Khe Sanh base perimeter, the Marines lied to the aircrews and sometimes put them at 500 meters or even closer. When the enemy finally withdrew, Americans scouting out the abandoned North Vietnamese positions found a moonscape of craters with no trees standing, littered with hundreds of enemy dead.
However, although the North Vietnamese suffered greatly at Khe Sanh, one of the goals of the siege was as a diversion, successfully distracting American attention from a buildup for an uprising across all of South Vietnam that began on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year's Day, in 1968. The Tet uprising was crushed and proved a tactical failure, but it would later be seen as a strategic victory for the Communists, since it destroyed the credibility of US military claims that the war was gradually being won.
American public support for the war, which had been wavering, now began to fade away. Richard M. Nixon won the US presidential election in the fall of 1968, partly on promises that he would disengage the US from the conflict. The Nixon Administration pursued a policy of "Vietnamization", trying to build up South Vietnamese forces to fight for themselves, while pursuing diplomatic efforts led by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
* The B-52D force in the theatre was drawn down. In September 1970, B-52 combat operations were halted at Anderson and Kadena, with Arc Light continuing from U Tapao, the base having been built up to the status of a full-service facility for the Buffs. 42 of the bombers were operated from U Tapao, the same number that had been originally committed to the theater.
By this time, the Buffs were performing raids not only on South Vietnam and Laos, but on Cambodia as well. The Nixon Administration had approved this expansion of the war not long after entering office in the spring of 1969. The Cambodian effort would eventually turn out to be something of a fiasco. It is unclear how much damage was done to the enemy in their enclaves there, but it is perfectly clear that the raids did much to destabilize the Cambodian government, eventually leading to its downfall to the insanely brutal Khmer Rouge. Like the Laos raids, the raids on Cambodia were supposed to be secret, but also as with the Laos raids, it was impossible to really conceal them.
The Vietnamization of the war was put to the test in the spring of 1972, when the North Vietnamese launched a full-scale offensive across the DMZ, supported by tanks and heavy artillery. By this time, the US was no longer in the forefront of the ground war, with South Vietnamese units taking the blows.
However, America was still providing air power, and US combat planes flew vast numbers of strikes, smashing the North Vietnamese. Although there had been no campaign of strikes into North Vietnam since the end of ROLLING THUNDER, the Nixon Administration ordered a new air offensive, initially codenamed FREEDOM TRAIN and then becoming LINEBACKER, with relatively few restrictions on targets that could be hit.
The B-52 force in the region was built up to 206 aircraft, including B-52Gs, with Anderson back in the act. The Buffs conducted a limited number of strikes against North Vietnam as part of this campaign, though most of their sorties were on Arc Light missions elsewhere. The North Vietnamese offensive was crushed, but the strikes on North Vietnam continued, only winding down in October, ahead of the US presidential elections. Richard Nixon was reelected, and the attacks quickly ramped up again in November.
Now that the B-52 was confronted with SAM defenses, it was only a matter of time before one got unlucky. That finally happened on 22 November 1972, when a B-52D was damaged by an SA-2 SAM in a raid on Vinh, an important rail center in the southern part of North Vietnam. The bomber's pilot, Captain N.J. Ostrozny, managed to get the burning machine back to Thailand before the crew bailed out, leaving the Buff to crash. All the crew were recovered safely.
In the meantime, the Americans had been continuing negotiations to hopefully allow the US to withdraw from Vietnam in peace, and get the prisoners of war (POWs) rotting in North Vietnamese POW camps back. The negotiations had been a frustrating, quarrelsome joke for years, and in late 1972 the Nixon Administration finally ran out of patience and ordered an all-out air offensive against North Vietnam. Mr. Nixon said privately, in characteristic style: "The bastards have never been bombed like they're going to be bombed this time!"
The raids began on 18 December 1972. Colonel James R. McCarthy, head of the 43rd Strategic Wing on Guam, briefed his crews that morning and started off with: "Gentlemen, your target for tonight is Hanoi." Everybody knew how well "Downtown" was defended, and McCarthy said that for the rest of the briefing "you could have heard a pin drop."
The new campaign, codenamed LINEBACKER II, involved very heavy attacks by almost every strike aircraft the US had in the theater, with the B-52 playing a prominent role. The initial plan scheduled attacks for three days. Along with heavy strikes by Air Force and Navy tactical aircraft, 48 Buffs went into battle on 18 December, with the crews under strict orders to fly straight and level on approach and not release bombs unless they were sure they were on the target. The brass didn't want reports showing up in the news media that they had bombed a hospital by mistake.
The Buffs were assisted by F-4 Phantoms laying down corridors of chaff and providing "BARCAP (barrier combat air patrol)" against North Vietnamese MiGs; Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star radar aircraft tracking the comings and goings of enemy fighters; F-105 Thunderchiefs performing "Wild Weasel" attacks on SAM sites; and EB-66 Destroyer jamming aircraft blinding enemy radars and communications.
The countermeasures did not work as well as expected and B-52s began to fall from the sky, victims of vast numbers of SAMs launched against them. One of the aircrew, Lieutenant Colonel Hendsley Connor, described the scene:
I saw the SAMs as we came in closer to the target area. They made white streaks of light they climbed into the night sky. As they left the ground, they would move slowly, pick up speed as they climbed, and end their flight, finally, in a cascade of sparkles. There were so many of them it reminded me of a Fourth of July fireworks display -- a beautiful sight to watch if I hadn't known how lethal they could be.
Three B-52s were lost on the 18th. 93 Buffs flew raids on the 19th, with no losses, but the strike plan was basically the same as it had been the day before. The North Vietnamese rarely missed a trick and noticed the pattern. 99 B-52s flew strikes on 20 December, and the enemy was ready and waiting. Six Buffs were blown out of the sky.
B-52 crews had been getting increasingly frustrated with the predictable tactics, knowing they would lead to trouble sooner rather than later, and the result of the losses was an outburst of protest and anger. The crews were perfectly willing to fly combat missions, but they were not happy about military bureaucracy that was setting them up like ducks in a shooting gallery. The Air Force has never been very specific on what exactly happened, some sources claiming that they had a near-mutiny on their hands, but it is clear that the brass decided to sit down and work on getting their house in order.
The B-52G was taking a disproportionate share of the losses. The "wet wing" of the B-52G made it more vulnerable to battle damage, as did the fact that not all of them had the same level of countermeasures fit as the B-52D. This situation was made all the more ironic because the B-52G, with no capability of carrying bombs on its external pylons, could only carry about half the conventional bombload of the B-52D.
The B-52Gs were ordered to stand down for two days while fixes were hurriedly implemented. 30 B-52Ds out of U Tapao flew strikes on 21 December, but the results were still bad, with two lost. The next night, the 22nd, 30 B-52Ds came back again, but this time their attacks were performed from unpredictable directions, and there were no losses. Strikes were made on SAM sites to help wear down the defenses for later.
The same approach, 30 bombers using unpredictable tactics, was repeated on the 23rd and 24th, once again with no losses. The raids were called off on Christmas Day as a good-will gesture, which was ignored. The Air Force hadn't been expecting any different, and had spent all of Christmas Day setting up an operation that would far surpass anything done before in the campaign.
On 26 December, a total of 120 Buffs performed raids, with 113 reaching their targets, all dropping their bombs within a space of 15 minutes, overwhelming the defenses. Colonel McCarthy described the action:
The flak started coming up when we made our first landfall. We were most vividly aware of the heavy, black, ugly explosions of 100-millimeter shells, visible even at night. Since we were at a lower altitude that we'd flown before, our wave was more vulnerable to AAA [anti-aircraft artillery or "triple-A"] than on previous missions, and the closer we got to the initial point, the more intense it got.
Then the SAMs started coming. The missiles that had been tracking us lifted off and headed for the aircraft. Now that the whole force was committed and were were on the bomb run, for the moment I had nothing to do, so I decided to count the SAMs launched against us. After 26 I quit counting. They were coming up too fast to keep an accurate tally. From the cockpit, it looked like they were barraging SAMs in order to make the lead element of the wave turn from its intended course. Some were close; some were too close for comfort.
About one hundred seconds prior to bombs away, the cockpit lit up like it was daylight. The light came from the rocket exhaust of a SAM that had come up right under our nose. The electronic warfare officer had reported an extremely strong signal, and he'd been right. That one looked like it missed by less than 15 meters.
At bombs away, it looked like we were right in the middle of a fireworks factory that was in the process of blowing up. The radio was completely saturated with SAM calls and MiG fighter warnings. As the bomb doors closed, several SAMs exploded nearby. Others could be seen arcing over and starting a descent, then detonating. If the proximity fuze didn't find a target, SA-2s were set to self-destruct at the end of a predetermined time interval.
Two B-52s were lost, but the the North Vietnamese were beginning to run out of SAMs and their air defenses were wobbly. 60 B-52s came back on the 27th, with two lost, but this was the last gasp of the defenders. 60 bombers hit again on the 28th and 29th, with no losses. The North Vietnamese agreed to negotiate on 29 December, and the B-52s stopped their strikes against North Vietnam.
* In 11 days of concentrated bombing, B-52s had performed 729 sorties and dropped 13,640 tonnes (15,000 tons) of bombs. The North Vietnamese claimed that almost 1,400 civilians were killed, though the fact that there weren't more was a testimony to the accuracy of the strikes, given the amount of explosives dropped.
The campaign was expensive, and not merely in financial terms. 15 Buffs were lost and 33 of their aircrew killed or missing in action. While the Air Force justifiably regarded the B-52 losses as severe, in one minor compensation, North Vietnamese SAMs had hardly proven magical, with a kill ratio of only 2% to 3% of the number of SAMs fired. They had scored the kills by simply flooding the sky with SAMs, and the Soviets were not happy about the poor showing of their weapons. In another small compensation, North Vietnamese MiG interceptors proved completely ineffective at taking on the Buffs, scoring no kills and with two of them shot down by the "quad-fifties" in B-52 tail turrets.
Although the unrestricted bombing campaign was referred to by critics as "an attempt to burn and pillage the enemy to the conference table", LINEBACKER II, sometimes called the "Eleven-Day War", was in fact devastatingly successful. Henry Kissinger contrasted the extremely uncooperative attitude of North Vietnamese negotiators before the raids with the great willingness to talk after them, and concluded: "These facts have to be analyzed by each person for himself."
It is tempting to speculate that such a ruthless air campaign earlier in the war might have changed its course considerably, but history is not a controlled experiment and speculation is all that it is.
A cease-fire was signed on 23 January 1973, with American POWs being flown out of Hanoi beginning on 18 March. However, the Buff's war was not quite over, with Arc Light strikes on Laos continuing into April and on Cambodia into August.
For all the effort in establishing a peace treaty, it was no more than a face-saving gesture for the US, allowing the country to get their troops and equipment out and bring their prisoners home. North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam again in the spring of 1975 and quickly conquered the country. Richard Nixon was no longer in office to witness this humiliation, having been forced to resign the previous August, in the shadow of impeachment over domestic political scandals.
* By the late 1960s, many of the older B-52 variants were nearing the end of their careers. The B-52B had been the first to go, with nearly all of them phased out by 1966, to be followed by the B-52C and B-52E in 1971. None of these variants had ever fired a shot in anger. The B-52Fs were also fading out in that time frame but lingered on until 1978.
The B-52D, B-52G, and B-52H remained in service. In the post-Vietnam timeframe, their normal colors were Vietnam-style camouflage on top but white, not black, on the bottom. This color scheme had been basically adopted even before the B-52D had gone to war in Southeast Asia, though black had replaced white in light of the requirements there.
Programs were being conducted to keep the Buffs up-to-date. Including the upgrade programs conducted in the 1960s, probably much more money has been spent on upgrades than was required to build the Buffs in the first place.
Several structural reinforcement programs were conducted in the early 1970s, while other upgrades gave the Buff new capabilities. In 1969:1971, a number of B-52Ds were modified to carry naval mines, giving the bomber a new role in maritime power projection. The aircraft's long range allowed to drop these weapons at almost any oceanic chokepoint in the world. Some US Navy brass were a bit irritated with the Air Force for encroaching on their turf, and in the 1980s the Navy successfully lobbied for restrictions on the B-52's maritime activities in US war plans.
The B-52 would also be qualified for other new conventional munitions, such as cluster bombs, and all B-52Gs and B-52Hs were finally fitted to carry bombs on their external pylons. However, in 1973 SAC, never having liked sparing their precious heavy bombers for the tactical role, returned all their B-52s to operating in the strategic role, with the conventional capability left strictly as a backup.
Beginning in 1971, a total of 270 B-52Gs and B-52Hs were modified under to carry the Boeing "AGM-69A Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM)", a solid fuel, nuclear-tipped weapon with a maximum range of about 160 kilometers (100 miles). Eight were stored in a rotary launcher in the bombbay and twelve mounted on the underwing pylons in triplets. SRAM gradually replaced the Hound Dog, which was finally phased out completely in 1978. SRAM would remain in service until 1990, when it would be phased out in turn due to concerns about warhead reliability.
* One of the most visible updates to the B-52 was the "ASQ-151 Electro-Optical Viewing System (EVS)", referred to as "Evs", which provided the Buff with sensors for low-level flight operations. The concept had been dreamt up by Boeing's chief of flight test, Jack Funk, in the mid-1960s. He had a Sony TV camera attached to the fin of a B-52, and this highly improvised fit proved very promising. Boeing's liason to the USAF, Colonel Rick Hudlow, was told about the experiment, and he kicked the idea upstairs to SAC. The result was award of a study contract in 1965, leading to a production contract in 1970. A total of about 270 B-52Gs and B-52Hs were updated with the EVS fit between 1971 and 1976, at a total cost of $281 million USD.
The EVS cluttered the Buff with two cheek blisters, with a Hughes "AN/AAQ-6 forward looking infrared (FLIR)" camera in the right blister and a Westinghouse "AN/AVQ-22 low light level television (LLTV)" camera in the left blister. The FLIR provided images from the heat of objects in the field of view, while the LLTV could pick up scenes illuminated only by starlight.
The two imagers could be steered, and in fact Buff crews call the LLTV a "steerable TV (STV)", and they could be rotated backwards in their blisters to protect them when not in use. The B-52 was always a basically warlike machine, with the profusion of sensors and antennas it began even more like a war dragon, with the relatively sleek new-build B-52s with their splendid anti-flash white paint jobs become so much Cold War history.
The EVS included new cockpit displays not only provided imagery from the cameras but also displayed flight status information, substantially reducing cockpit workload. EVS made low-level operations much easier and safer. It also reduced the aircraft's vulnerability against adversary defenses, since the sensors allowed the bomber to be flown without use of navigation radars that could reveal the aircraft's presence, and allowed the Buff to be flown when it was "buttoned up" with flash curtains for a nuclear strike.
* A "Phase VI ECM Defensive Avionics Systems" upgrade, codenamed "Rivet Ace", was begun more or less near the end of the EVS upgrade. It included a comprehensive update of countermeasures systems for the B-52G and B-52H, including:
The ECM enhancements led to the extension of the tail behind the tailplanes by a little more than a meter (40 inches). A "Phase VI+" ECM update would be installed beginning in 1988, with the main change being the replacement of the AN/ALQ-117 with the improved AN/ALQ-172(V)2 countermeasures system.
* The B-52D, the Air Force's workhorse in Vietnam, was finally withdrawn from service in 1983, but the B-52G and B-52H stayed on the flight lines, with the Air Force performing another level of upgrades in that decade through the two billion USD "AN/ASQ-176 Offensive Avionics System (OAS)" program.
The primary goal of the OAS upgrade was to replace the old AN/ASQ-38 BNS, as it was becoming old and decrepit by that time, with digital, solid-state gear that was hardened to resist the "electromagnetic pulse (EMP)" associated with a nuclear blast. The upgrade included new controls, processors, and displays; a radar altimeter; attitude and heading reference system; dual inertial guidance systems; missile interface systems; and a MILSTD-1553A data bus to link the systems together. Another minor change was replacement of the post-strike reconnaissance film camera in the belly with a videotape recorder camera.
A B-52G was used to prototype the OAS fit, with the modified aircraft performing its first flight on 3 September 1980. Update of the B-52 fleet to OAS specification was completed in 1986, at a hefty cost of about $1.66 billion USD.
* The Quail decoy had been reluctantly phased out in 1978 due to lack of spares. The Air Force had hoped to field an improved "Subsonic Cruise Armed Decoy (SCAD)" with a nuclear warhead as a replacement, but it didn't happen, at least not in that form.
Arming a decoy raised the slippery question of whether it was a decoy or a missile, and what sense it made to combine the functions. The Air Force decided that it didn't make sense and that a missile would be preferable to a decoy, and the result was, after some complicated politics, the "AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM)".
ALCM was a jet-propelled, nuclear-armed missile with pop-out flight surface, precision low-level guidance, and a range of over 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles). Beginning in 1982, 98 B-52Gs were equipped with the ALCM. Six could be carried on each underwing pylon, for a total of 12. Later, all B-52Hs were updated to carry the ALCM as well, with the B-52H carrying 12 on the pylons, plus an additional 8 on a "Common Strategic Rotary Launcher (CSRL)" in the bombbay.
In accordance with the SALT II strategic arms-limitation treaty, "cruise missile carrier (CMC)" B-52Gs were fitted with small leading-edge wingroot extensions called "strakelets" so they could be recognized by reconnaissance satellites. The strakelets were not fitted to B-52Hs, since all of them were CMCs and they were easily recognized by their TF-33 turbofan engines, but when B-52Hs were upgraded to the CMC configuration they were fitted with a pair of distinctive AN/ALT-32 "elephant ear" antennas on the rear fuselage as a recognition feature. They were not connected to anything.
In the late 1980s, the US also developed an "AGM-129A Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM)", an improved "stealthy" follow-on to ALCM with forward-swept wings. The ACM was also carried on B-52s, with 20 fitted to a B-52H in an arrangement similar to ALCM carriage.
The ACM was produced in more limited numbers than the ALCM. Neither ALCM nor ACM as such have ever been used in combat. However, a large number of ALCMs were converted to a conventionally-armed configuration, beginning in the 1980s under conditions of great secrecy, and these "Conventional ALCMs (CALCMs)" would become a weapon of choice for the B-52, as discussed later.
In the mid-1980s, in yet another effort to encroach on the Navy's sea-control mission, 30 B-52Gs were also modified to carry a total of eight "AGM-84 Harpoon" antishipping cruise missiles on the external pylons. 19 B-52Hs were later modified for the same weapons fit. The Harpoon-carrying Buffs usually cooperate with Navy patrol aircraft, such as the Lockheed P-3 Orion, which provide over-the-horizon targeting for the bombers.
* Even with the new guided weapons, the B-52 still retained its traditional armament of free-fall nuclear bombs. The nuclear munition types carried by the B-52 in the 1960s were more or less phased out in the 1980s, but the Buff could carry newer weapons, including the "B61" and "B83".
The B61 or "silver bullet" is a lightweight weapon with a selectable yield, ranging from tens to hundreds of kilotonnes, and was introduced in the late 1960s. It is carried on clips and on the CSRL, with a maximum bombload of 12 munitions. The B83 is a strategic weapon, with a yield in the megatonne range, and was introduced in the early 1980s. Carriage options are similar to those for the B61.
* The B-52s were also fitted with less violent gear for other missions, At least four B-52Hs were modified to carry an air-sampling module in the forward bombbay to detect radioactive traces from nuclear tests or accidents. The gunner's station was modified to permit control of the module, which weighs about 900 kilograms (a ton) and has five retractable sampling scoops.
These aircraft are referred to as "Giant Fish" for some reason. It is unclear when the modifications were performed, but Giant Fish B-52s were used for atmospheric monitoring during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, and they appear to still be in service.
* Another major upgrade of the B-52 was begun in 1985, when all B-52Hs and a number of B-52Gs were fitted with the Norden "AN/APQ-156 Strategic Radar" system, replacing the AN/AQS-176 unit, itself a replacement for the AN/ASQ-38 BNS. The "Strat Radar" upgrade involved fit of the radar and a number of auxiliary systems. It was a complicated piece of work, and cost about $700 million USD.
The gradual thawing of the Cold War in the late 1980s, which would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, meant that the mission that SAC had been organized to fight was starting to go out of fashion. In May 1988, SAC officially tasked some B-52 units to the conventional mission in order to keep up with changing circumstances. This was good timing, since after almost two decades of peace, the B-52 was nearing the day when it would go back to war and put all the improvements of the 1970s and 1980s to practical use.
* The Buff returned to combat during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 as part of the air campaign during OPERATION DESERT STORM, the effort to evict Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. About 80 B-52Gs operated against the Iraqis from bases in the US and overseas, including Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Moron, Spain; RAF Fairford in the UK; the remote Diego Garcia island base in the Indian Ocean; and a few other installations. They were painted a dark military gray, the new standard paintjob for the Buff, adopted after some interim experiments with gray patterned camouflage schemes.
On 17 January 1991, seven B-52Gs, known as the "Doom Flight", took off from Barksdale AFB in Louisiana to help kick off the air campaign. They performed a flight that lasted 35 hours and took them almost halfway around the world to launch 35 CALCMs and then go back home. The routes of the missiles were planned so that they would impact almost simultaneously, and 33 of them hit their assigned targets. That same day, the B-52G followed up this strike with the first low-level attacks conducted by the type after decades of training. Buffs swept into Iraqi airspace at an altitude of 90 meters (300 feet) to pound four airbases and a highway.
With Iraqi air defenses disabled, the B-52Gs then returned to high-altitude bombing, with three-ship formations pounding Iraqi troops concentrations in Iraq with 340 kilogram (750 pound) bombs and cluster bombs. The B-52 performed 1,600 sorties in the Gulf War and dropped 22,725 tonnes (25,000 tons) of munitions.
No B-52s were lost in action, but one Buff crashed in the Indian Ocean on the way back to Diego Garcia after an electrical system failure, with the loss of three crew members. The crew were in sight of the island when they went down. Two other B-52Gs were hit by Iraqi SAMs, and one was unlucky enough to be hit by a US "high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM)". The HARM was fired at an Iraqi radar that then went silent, and the missile then locked onto the tail radar of a B-52G and hit the bomber. All three of these aircraft made it safely back to base.
* Following the Gulf War, in the fall of 1991, US President George Bush (Senior) ordered that the alert system be abandoned, and for the first time since 1957, nuclear-armed Buffs were no longer sitting on the tarmac, waiting for the word to get into the air and conduct nuclear strikes.
SAC itself was disbanded in an Air Force reorganization in June 1992. Although the B-52 remained a strategic weapon, with crews continuing to train for the nuclear mission, with SAC gone the B-52 was now essentially just another weapon that could assigned to whatever necessary role, instead of being jealously guarded as a strategic asset and only reluctantly released for other roles.
Another change was the gradual elimination of defensive armament. The tail turrets of all surviving B-52s were removed in 1991:1994, as the guns were no longer considered to be a particularly effective defense and were a maintenance headache. Crews described the disarmed Buffs as "Bobbited", in reference to a contemporary marital dispute that turned ugly and got national headlines. The guns were replaced by a panel, which was perforated to ensure equalization of pressure and is sometimes called the "cheesegrater".
The B-52 force was continuing its slow decline during this time. Phaseout of the B-52G began in 1989, with the variant getting a temporary lease on life due to its sterling service in the Gulf War, but the last B-52G was withdrawn from service in 1994.
The major reason for obsoleting the B-52G was the old water-injected J57 engines. Maintenance was a problem, but there was also the fact that water injection was an idea whose time had long passed. As one B-52 pilot put it: "The idea of dumping tons of water into a fire is as absurd as it sounds. If the pumps don't work or you lose the water augmentation, conditions can become critical. What can also happen is that you can put out the fire in the engine. If you put out two engines in the outboards, you not only lose the engines, but you give yourself a nightmare of a directional control problem. It's a problem that is serious. It gets your attention."
* Although calling water injection "absurd" is a bit of an exaggeration, since it was used in many different kinds of aircraft for decades and the J57 was a landmark of jet-engine design, water injection is now basically stone-axe technology, and nobody was unhappy to see it go.
However, killing off the B-52G because of its antique engines emphasized the uncomfortable fact that the TF33 turbofans used on the B-52H are almost as old and archaic as the J57. Although much better than the J57, the TF33 is not comparable to the modern high-bypass-ratio turbofans used on modern jetliners.
In 1996, Boeing, as leader of a team including Rolls-Royce, Allison, and American Airlines, proposed an engine upgrade for the B-52H, replacing the eight TF33s with four Rolls-Royce RB.211 turbofans, and adding cockpit engine control displays developed for the Boeing 757 airliner. Boeing's analysis demonstrated that the more fuel-efficient and reliable RB.211s would save billions of dollars over the expected further lifetime of the B-52H fleet. In addition, the RB.211s would provide substantially more power and range, as well as quieter and cleaner operation.
The industry team's proposal include full-service maintenance and flexible financing, essentially allowing the Air Force to pay off the new engines as part of normal operating costs after installation. The pitch was that this would still be cheaper than continuing to operate the TF33s.
The Air Force was tempted, but didn't buy off on the concept. The service was focused on other procurement priorities, such as a new tanker fleet, and did not want to expend resources on old news such as the B-52. However, as the origins of the B-52 itself demonstrates, defense programs have an odd tendency to fade in and out of existence, and there's no saying the re-engining plan may not rematerialize and even be implemented.
* The B-52H was given other upgrades, however. Beginning in the early 1990s, a number of B-52Hs were fitted to carry the "AGM-142 Have Nap" standoff weapon, an Americanized variant of the Israeli Rafael "Popeye" missile produced in cooperation with Lockheed Martin. The AGM-142 is a solid-fuel missile with a 900-kilogram (2,000-pound) warhead and a precision imaging guidance system for pinpoint attacks. The radar navigator guides it to a target using a joystick and watching the images from the missile's seeker on a display. Two AGM-142s, or an AGM-142 and a guidance pod, could be carried on each B-52H external pylon.
Later on in the decade, the B-52H would be fitted to carry the new "Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)" and "Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW)" guided glide bombs. These weapons use the "Global Positioning System (GPS)" satellite constellation to zero in on target coordinates. Use of the JDAM and other GPS weapons was enabled by yet another Buff avionics upgrade, the "Conventional Enhancement Modification (CEM)" program, which was begun in 1994. New kit provided by CEM includes:
Although not part of the CEM program as such, the B-52H was fitted with another item, the "AN/AS-3858 / AN/AAR-85T(T) Miniature Receive Terminal (MRT)", in the same timeframe. The MRT is a five-channel LF/VLF receiver that allows messages to be sent to the bomber.
At some time before the CEM upgrade, the Buff was also fitted with the "AN/ARC-171(V)" USF/AFSATCOM radio, which permits the bomber to perform communications over the US military's satellite communications system. Exactly when this fit was performed is unclear, but it gave the B-52H clear communications from almost anyplace in the world.
* Even as the Air Force was dropping the idea of an engine upgrade, the service was sending the B-52H back to war again, and in fact the Buff was busier than it had been in decades.
On 3 September 1996, the US launched a set of attacks against Iraqi air defense sites, in response to harassment of Western aircraft patrolling Iraqi airspace. B-52Hs flying out of Guam launched 13 CALCMs, in cooperation with strikes by other aircraft and US Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles. The strikes generally achieved their goals, but there were reports of CALCM failures and planning glitches that targeted some of the CALCMs on hardened facilities where their fragmentation warheads would have no effect.
Iraqi provocations continued, and on 16 December 1998, the US and Britain launched an even more comprehensive set of strikes under OPERATION DESERT FOX. On 17 December, the Buffs provided their contribution to the operation by launching 90 CALCMs.
The Buffs had hardly caught their breath from this action when they were committed to OPERATION ALLIED FORCE, the NATO operation to evict the Yugoslav Army from Kosovo, in February 1999. B-52Hs operating from Barksdale and Minot AFB in North Dakota flew 270 sorties, beginning in March with six Buffs launching CALCMs to help spearhead the attack, followed by strikes with iron bombs and cluster munitions on Yugoslav Army units.
The B-52H continued to provide excellent service during the war in Afghanistan in 2001:2002. Buffs operating out of Diego Garcia performed precision strikes with new JDAM GPS-guided bombs, first taking out planned targets, and then operating in a reactive close-support role. The bombers would orbit in the operating area, receiving attack orders and coordinates in flight. The crew would program a few bombs, drop them to hit the specified targets, and then wait for further instructions.
A little over a year later, in the spring of 2003, B-52s went back to war again, providing strikes during the American invasion of Iraq. During the campaign, B-52s operated with yet another external store, the Rafael / Northrop Grumman Litening II targeting pod. The pod, which included magnifying day-night optics and a laser target designator, allowed the B-52s to inspect and conduct precision strikes on targets (with laser-guided bombs) from high altitude.
The Litening II pod is mounted on an external pylon. The Air Force Reserve managed the program, promoting it in the face of skepticism that targeting pods were appropriate for fighters but not heavy bombers. Funding finally became available in October 2002, with flight testing beginning in February 2003.
A total of 12 Buffs are to be modified in all, though the USAF only plans to acquire six pods. However, advocates for the capability would like to modify all operational B-52s to carry the Litening II and buy up to 40 pods. It does seem to be a bit startling that the old Buff could carry an external targeting pod, but given the bomber's long-proven versatility not all that much of a surprise.
* Given the Buff's astounding persistence, it would be unwise to say that Afghanistan was its last hurrah, but it was clearly in its twilight days. The B-1 had been brought up to sufficient conventional attack capability to give a role equal or greater than that of the B-52.
The Air Force is considering withdrawal of 18 of the 94 B-52Hs currently in service. However, there is Congressional opposition to this idea, and there is also a proposal to use the B-52H as a "stand-off jammer" designated the "EB-52H" to compensate for a current shortfall in ECM capabilities. The B-52H would be loaded up with high-power countermeasures gear to stand outside a battle area and blind adversary radars.
The B-52 is said, convincingly, to have had the longest first-line service career of any combat aircraft in history, and there still may be life in the old Buff yet.
* If there's any aircraft I am familiar with, it's the B-52. I grew up in Spokane, Washington, under the approach path to Fairchild AFB outside the city, and have clear memories of the big bombers coming in directly overhead every day, carrying Hound Dogs on their pylons. During the Vietnam War I would see camouflaged B-52s flying in as well.
Fortunately, our house was far enough away so that the noise was no bother. I do have memories of being someplace or other around town and hearing an absolutely thunderous rumbling roar in the distance towards Fairchild, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I learned about water injection and understood exactly what was happening.
The Air Force would parade Hound Dogs through town on parade for the city festival, Lilac Day, in the spring. I also have the damnedest fuzzy memory of being a little shaver and inspecting a Quail decoy that as best as I recall was set up for display in a shopping center. I also vaguely recall there was no one watching over the thing, which would be unthinkable now.
Of course, the B-52 figures prominently in another memory of the era, Stanley Kubrick's movie DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED HOW TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. Kubrick's film remains a tribute of sorts to the Cold War, characterized by a chilly brand of satire and humor, ending with the classic scene of Major "King" Kong, a B-52 commander played by Slim Pickens, riding an H-bomb down out of the bombbay like a rodeo cowboy into a blaze of glory.
* Sources include:
* Revision history:
v1.0.0 / 01 jul 02 / gvg
v1.0.1 / 01 jul 03 / gvg / Minor cosmetic update.