Designed in the late 1940s, the B-52 Stratofortress bomber is today still a very impressive and very large flying missile platform that can carry 32 tons of ship-killer missiles and gliding sea mines over 8,200 kilometers on one fuel load. This makes it capable of flying from Australia to China and back to Australia — and still have enough fuel onboard to refuel in the friendly skies near Australia.
That’s probably why the U.S. has now revealed that it plans to send six B-52s to a Royal Australian Air Force air base in northern Australia. According to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), U.S. documents list details of how the U.S. will build a squadron operations facility, a maintenance center and a parking area for the massive long-range bombers at the Australian base.
The report also quotes the U.S. Air Force as saying that positioning these potent long-range bombers in Australia, Washington is sending a strong message to adversaries about its ability to project air power. This new bomber force will add to the four other B-52s that had earlier this year been sent to the U.S.’ large air base on the Pacific island of Guam, just 2,700 kilometers from Taiwan.
From their launch point at RAAF Base Tindal just south of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, the six B-52s would be able to fly over Indonesia and the Philippines toward Taiwan, before launching their massive arsenals of guided missiles and gliding mines from a safe distance. With their huge fuel loads, the six missile platforms would be able to circle in a strike position for hours while they severely damage any Chinese invasion force (or blockading force) before turning back to their base in Australia, which is 4,200 kilometers from Taiwan.
The bombers would also be able to divert to the closer U.S. air base on Guam island, or the U.S.’ Kadena Air Base on Japan’s Okinawa island, only 600 kilometers from Taiwan. Basing the six heavy bombers in Australia would also provide back-up capabilities in case China escalates the Taiwan conflict by attacking the U.S. air bases on Guam and Okinawa with land-based and submarine-based ballistic and hypersonic missiles.
As the Australian military analyst, Ashley Townshend, puts it: China’s missile threat is so severe that the U.S. needs more and safer places to operate. Australia is one such place. Dispersal in Australia is part of efforts to bolster deterrence by making bombers more survivable and more effective. It also creates multiple targeting dilemmas for China. Townshend added that Australia is a good place to position U.S. bombers because Australia is a “trusted ally, highly integrated, already part of the U.S. extended deterrence complex, not far from Asian flashpoints, but far enough away from most of China’s long-range missiles to make investment prudent.”
The Stratofortress can carry a large array of guided missiles and bombs, and even sea mines in its large bomb bay and on hardpoints under its very large wings. Most of these sea mines are dropped straight down into the ocean, requiring the planes to fly low and slow over the mined area, but the U.S. is currently testing a guided, gliding sea mine that has folded wings that pop out when the mine is dropped from an airplane. The sea mine can then glide around 70 kilometers to a designated spot before submerging and activating its fuzing system. The fuze only detonates the weapon when it detects the unique acoustic, seismic or pressure signature of a passing enemy ship or submarine.
The Pentagon is also looking at jet-powered flying sea mines that can be dropped from B-52s and fly long distances toward their activation points. Such long-range air-dropped mines would make it possible for the B-52s to plant mines in contested areas from long stand-off distances. This greatly reduces the risk of getting shot down by enemy ships that might be active in the contested area, like the Taiwan Strait would be during a hypothetical invasion.
The B-52 is a fascinating example of longevity in airplane design. The first prototype took to the air in 1952, while the first active version was delivered for military service in 1955. A product of the Cold War, it was designed to carry multiple nuclear bombs while circling just outside Soviet airspace. Before the U.S. developed its first dependable intercontinental ballistic missiles, dozens of these cold-war giants would be in the air at any given point in time, flying in patterns over the Arctic, ready to fly into Soviet airspace and drop their nukes at short notice.
Because of its huge size and strange shape, the B-52 was nicknamed “the BUFF,” which stands for “Big Ugly Fat Fellow,” but this huge airframe also allowed it to be retrofitted with highly sophisticated navigational systems, weapons-control systems and electronic countermeasures systems.
In all, a total of 744 B-52s were produced in eight versions by Boeing between 1952 and 1962. Since 1994, the last version of the Stratofortress, the B-52H, is the only version remaining in service.
The planes have been kept in good condition thanks to regular maintenance and the periodic replacement of aging parts and panels. In the late 1970s Boeing replaced the metal skin on the upper part of the airplanes’ wings, which is the most fragile part of the B-52. In 1983, the then commander of the 28th Bombardment Wing, Colonel Robert Durkin, told a reporter: “I would be surprised if there’s an original rivet in any of those (B-52) airplanes we have out on the ramp. It’s been re-winged. It’s been re-skinned. It’s been re-tailed.”
The U.S. Air Force has also upgraded the technologies inside the planes and is currently spending billions in different tech upgrade programs for the remaining Stratofortresses. In 2011, Boeing was paid $12 billion to rewire all 76 B-52s and add “Link 16” datalinks and new cockpit displays. The wiring update allows the bombers to carry precision-guided bombs in their bomb bays, instead of only on their wing pylons.
In 2019, Raytheon was hired to replace the 1960s-era radar with a new electronically-scanned radar. Last year, a program was started to replace the old analogue radar jammer with a digital copy of the same system. Recently, the U.S. Air Force also allocated $2.6 billion for Rolls Royce to build eight modern jet engines per B-52 to replace the 1960s-vintage engines that the B-52s currently use. The cost would also include Boeing’s bill for installing the new engines.
The new engines are expected to increase the B-52’s fuel efficiency by 40%, thereby extending its unrefueled range — with a standard weapons load and a one-hour fuel reserve — from 8,200 kilometers to 12,000 kilometers. The total cost of the B-52’s 20-year modernization project comes out to $15 billion so far.
The U.S. Air Force plans to use the B-52 as a forward platform for launching cruise missiles and gliding sea mines from safe distances, while the new and under-construction B-21 stealth bomber will be tasked with flying into air-defense systems and getting up close and personal with the enemy.
Image: U.S. Air Force
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