B-52H ‘Buffs’ Demonstrate Global Reach

 - September 11, 2019, 12:14 PM
A B-52H approaches a tanker during a long-range mission in support of Exercise Eager Lion. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force has been demonstrating the range and reach of its force of aging Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bombers in a series of exercises. On September 5, a B-52  from the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, flew a nonstop mission of more than 30 hours as part of a "show of force" during the combined arms live-fire Exercise Eager Lion 19. The aircraft participated in a flyover at the end of the exercise, dispensing infrared decoy flares as it flew past near Amman, Jordan.

Eager Lion is now the largest U.S. military exercise in the Middle East and has been held annually in Jordan since 2010. The two-week multinational exercise grew out of the bilateral Infinite Moonlight U.S.-Jordanian annual exercise that began in the 1990s. The exercise now involves 30 countries and 8,000 participants.

The B-52 has a long history of flying very long-distance, extended-endurance bombing missions. On December 26, 1972, for example, during the Linebacker II bombing campaign against North Vietnam, some B-52Gs were said to have flown 18-hour, 8,200-mile missions, though the actual distance from Guam to Hanoi was 2,650 statute miles.

On August 1, 1994, the 96th Bomb Squadron flew a 47-hour mission that took two B-52H Stratofortresses around the world—hitting a target in the Middle East before returning to Barksdale by circumnavigating the earth. This was intended to prove that the B-52 could hit any target in the world without having to land.

On September 2 and 3, 1996, two B-52H bombers took off from Andersen AFB, Guam, and conducted a 34-hour, 16,000-mile round trip mission as part of Operation Desert Strike. The two B-52s struck power stations and communications facilities around Baghdad, firing 13 AGM-86C conventional air-launched cruise missiles (CALCMs).

Today, the B-52H serves with two wings of the Eighth Air Force, based at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana (the 2nd Bomb Wing) and Minot AFB, Montana (the 5th Bomb Wing). The Eighth is designated as U.S. Strategic Command's Task Force 204 (TF 204) and forms part of Air Force Global Strike Command—the successor to Strategic Air Command.

The B-52, affectionately known as the Buff (Big Ugly Fat Fella), first flew in prototype form in April 1952, and the type entered service in 1955. The USAF plans to keep the B-52H in service until 2045 and initially retained an active fleet of 76 aircraft. Thirteen more were kept in “inviolate” 1000-level storage at AMARG (the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. In 2016 and 2018 two of the latter were returned to service from AMARG’s desert boneyard to replace damaged or written-off aircraft in the active fleet.

The 76 B-52Hs outnumber and will outlive two newer bombers: the USAF’s 66 Rockwell B-1B Lancers and the 20 Northrop B-2A Spirits, which entered service in 1986 and 1997 (IOC), respectively, and which are currently scheduled to retire in the mid-2030s.

The USAF prizes the B-52H’s ability to loiter for extended periods, and to deliver a wide range of weapons, including stand-off and direct-fire precision-guided munitions and missiles. The B-52H also enjoys the best mission-capable rate of the three USAF heavy bomber types and, while it costs more to operate than the B-1B, its operating costs are about half those of the B-2A.