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?
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.
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. (end of excerpt)
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