The end of the Vietnam Era in the United States military led to two significant changes in the services. The United States shifted to an all-volunteer military, with the draft discontinued. It also saw drastic reductions in operational budgets, as well as for future expansion. At the time US Naval doctrine centered around the aircraft carrier-based task force for surface warfare. Anti-submarine warfare was an important part of surface, aerial, and submarine doctrine as well. By the late 1970s, there was significant concern the Soviet air and naval assets could overwhelm the defense systems of the carrier task force through simple force of numbers.
Joint US Navy/US Air Force operations allowed the B-52, its defenses hardened by modifications following the Vietnam War, to fly long-range reconnaissance missions monitoring the steadily expanding Soviet fleet. Those flights were considerably outside the envisioned duties of the B-52 when it was designed in the 1950s. In 1975 the US Air Force began training B-52 aircrews in naval reconnaissance missions. By the early 1980s, B-52s were armed with anti-ship missiles, which could be launched against Soviet Naval assets. Anti-naval B-52 squadrons operated out of bases in Maine in the Atlantic, and Guam in the Pacific. They were coordinated by US Navy or US Air Force AWAC airplanes and formed an important part of the American response to the Soviet naval buildup during the latter years of the Cold War.
16. The B-52 became a critical component of deployment of naval mines
In May 1972, the US Navy used aircraft to mine the waters of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam, effectively closing the port to shipping for the next 300 days. President Nixon announced the operation to the American people. “All entrances to North Vietnamese ports will be mined to prevent access to these ports and North Vietnamese naval operations from these ports”. For the remainder of 1972, US Navy mine-laying operations closed the rest of the ports of North Vietnam. It was one of the more successful American operations of the entire Vietnam War. Eventually, over 8,000 mines were deployed by US Navy and Marine aircraft, effectively shutting down water commerce in North Vietnam. Although the United States was then involved with withdrawing from Vietnam, it nonetheless viewed the mining operation as a crucial negotiating tool with the intransigent North Vietnamese.
Beginning in the 1980s, with US Navy/Air Force joint maritime operations on the uptick, B-52s were modified to operate as airborne minelayers. The aging bomber offered the advantages of being able to deploy more mines, from a longer distance, than any aircraft in the Navy’s inventory. It also provided the ability to mine enemy waters without requiring a close approach by a carrier group, thus placing the ships of the group in harm’s way. The B-52, originally designed to deliver gravity bombs carrying nuclear warheads, had by the 1980s evolved into a strike weapon for use against enemy shipping using both anti-ship missiles and naval mines. It still retained its role as an alert weapon of America’s nuclear triad, as events in Europe led to the collapse of the Soviet system and the end of the Cold War.
17. The B-52 changed to nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in the 1980s
By the early 1980s, the B-52s that remained in the nuclear force carried as their primary weapon a subsonic air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) designated as the AGM-86. The range of the new weapon allowed the B-52 to approach, but not enter, Soviet airspace. Releasing the weapons while still outside Soviet airspace provided the bombers with greater survivability while flooding the Soviet detection and defense systems with small, fasting moving, targets. Of course, the Soviets responded with improvements to their defenses, and the Air Force reacted in kind with newer cruise missiles with better capabilities. The cost and tensions of the Cold War continued to rise on both sides. By 1982, a single B-52 could carry up to 20 AGM-86 missiles, making it once again a formidable nuclear strike weapon.
Beginning in May 1982, the United States and the Soviet Union discussed placing a rein on their expanding nuclear arms inventories. Throughout the decade the talks started and broke off, in response to changing politics and various international crises. Ultimately the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) led to a treaty known as START 1, which was signed by US President George H. W. Bush and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in July 1991. One of the conditions of the treaty was the removal of the B-52 as a nuclear strike weapon. The Russians were allowed to verify the destruction of the required number of B-52s both via satellite observation and in-person inspection. The designated B-52s were sent to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG) near Tucson, to await their fate.
Not all of the B-52s in the Air Force inventory were destined for destruction as a result of START 1. The service retained the final variant of the airplane, the B-52H, designated as a conventional bomber. A few of the remaining B-52G variant were distributed as non-flying museum displays under the terms of the treaty. The remaining 365 B-52s were sent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where they were then relocated to AMRG. After arriving, and in accordance with the schedule established by the START agreement, the airplanes were stripped of all serviceable parts. They were then placed into positions in the fields at AMRG. There, the aircraft awaited the services of a giant crane which served as a sort of guillotine to break up the aircraft. The airframes were sliced into separate parts.
A 13,000-pound “blade” was dropped onto the aircraft. Each wing was removed, followed by the fuselage being sliced into three pieces. The aircraft then remained in place for the ensuing three months, a provision in the agreement which allowed the Russians to confirm compliance with the terms of the treaty. After it was determined the “guillotine” was destructive of potentially reusable materials, according to some reports, rescue saws were used to cut up the retired airplanes more efficiently. After confirmation by the Russians, the remains of the former bombers were sold as scrap. The process of destroying the bulk of the B-52 bomber fleet continued into 2001. The US Air Force retained an inventory of less than 100 B-52H variants, yet they still had a significant role to play in American military operations.
19. B-52s struck in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm
On January 16, 1991, a flight of B-52s departed Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana (These planes were later destroyed at AMRG). The airplanes refueled inflight, launched conventionally armed AGM-86 stand-off cruise missiles and returned to Barksdale after a flight of 14,000 miles, taking 34 hours from takeoff to landing. It was at the time the longest combat mission ever flown by any aircraft. And it was a complete success. The B-52 eventually flew over 1,620 missions during Operation Desert Storm. About 40% of the ordnance dropped on targets in Iraq during that conflict were delivered by B-52s. They operated from bases in Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Spain, and the remote island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
During one mission a B-52 was hit by friendly fire which accidentally targeted the airplane’s radar-controlled tail gun fire control system. In response, the Air Force removed the tail gunner from the bombers’ crews, and over the next several years the weapon was deactivated. The B-52 broke its own record for the longest combat mission in 1996. Two B-52H bombers departed Andersen Field, Guam, took out targets in and around Baghdad, Iraq, and returned. The 34-hour mission covered over 16,000 nautical miles, claiming the longest distance flown for a combat airstrike. B-52s also served in the wars over the collapse of Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, and in operations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Although the Air Force inventory is reduced to less than 80 aircraft, it remains a workhorse of the skies.
20. The B-52 is likely to remain in service for another 30 years
As the geopolitical situation around the globe continues to change, the proven versatility of the B-52 means the Air Force will continue to call upon its oldest combat aircraft for the foreseeable future. Plans to re-engine the fleet, giving it still greater capabilities at more economical costs, have been proposed and studied during several budget cycles. Replacement of two far more recent bombers is scheduled for the mid-2020s, the B1 Lancer and the B2 Spirit. Their replacement, the B-21 Raider, is scheduled for deployment by 2026, though in all new weapons systems development there are unavoidable and often seemingly endless delays. Meanwhile, under current plans, the B-52 will keep flying.
As of this writing, no military aircraft has served longer than the B-52. Though some claim that record for the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, that highly successful airplane entered service in 1956. The Hercules does claim the record for the aircraft with the longest period of production, over 60 years and counting. The Hercules has served in the Air Forces or civilian service of over 60 nations. By contrast, the Boeing B-52 has served but one. Whether current plans hold, or changing circumstances cause them to be reconsidered, the design which arose in a Dayton hotel continues to prove its merits across the globe. The US Navy built and operated 29 ballistic missile submarines during the period of B-52 production, and another 12 in the decade which followed (41 for Freedom). All are retired, and most have been scrapped. The B-52 flies on.
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