By Michael T. Klare
It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Air Force dispatched four B-52H Stratofortress bombers from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Royal Air Force Base Fairford in the United Kingdom on February 10 as part of a European buildup in anticipation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.1 Of all the weapons in the U.S. inventory, none can deliver greater quantities of explosive ordnance, whether nuclear or conventional, and none has the same capacity to arouse awe and trepidation in the minds of potential targets.
B-52s deployed to Fairford in recent years have been sent over the Black and Baltic seas on simulated air strikes aimed at key Russian ports, air bases, radar stations, and command posts. Given this history, the recent dispatch to Europe of potentially nuclear-armed bombers was surely intended to signal a U.S. intent to inflict severe harm on Russia if it attacked a NATO member state or U.S. forces stationed in Europe—exactly the sort of coercive messaging B-52s have long performed.
The Boeing Stratofortress, known in Air Force circles as the BUFF, for Big Ugly Fat Fucker, flew for the first time 70 years ago on April 15, 1952. Originally developed by U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the end of World War II to deliver atomic bombs on the Soviet Union, it constituted the principal U.S. instrument for obliterating Soviet cities, bases, and industrial centers in the early years of the Cold War. Later, during the Vietnam War, it was converted into a colossal flying dump truck for raining conventional ordnance on enemy positions in South Vietnam and strategic targets in North Vietnam, thus earning a reputation as a particularly dreaded bearer of death and destruction.
Since Vietnam, the BUFF has retained its original nuclear role, although it has also been used on several occasions, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, to deliver conventional munitions on the battlefield. Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was renewed in February 2021 for five years, B-52s, along with some B-2 stealth bombers, are covered under the category of allowable U.S. nuclear delivery systems, and 40 out of 46 nuclear-capable H-model BUFFs presently are assigned to this role.2 To ensure the B-52 will continue flying for decades to come, all remaining aircraft are being refitted with new Rolls-Royce jet engines, extending the plane’s service life well into the 2050s and making this the longest-serving combat aircraft in the history of aviation.3
Exercise Global Shield ’82
I had a unique opportunity to experience the BUFF’s incredible capacity to inspire awe in July 1982 when I observed a simulated nuclear strike on the Soviet Union as a freelance journalist covering exercise Global Shield ’82, SAC’s largest nuclear war exercise until that time. According to the preflight briefings I received, Global Shield ’82 was intended to test SAC's ability to conduct worldwide nuclear strike operations under simulated “general war” conditions, meaning a full-scale thermonuclear contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. This was a time of heightened tensions with Moscow, coinciding with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and other superpower flare-ups. U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who assumed office in January 1981, adopted a harsh stance toward Moscow and immediately boosted military spending by 13 percent. Later that year, he signed National Security Decision Directive 13, which called for a full-scale nuclear assault on the Soviet Union, employing the entire U.S. arsenal, in the event of a future U.S.-Soviet conflict.4 Global Shield ’82 constituted the first actual test of Washington’s ability to implement the directive, with every component of the U.S. nuclear enterprise expected to play a part.
From what I was able to determine from unclassified information, Global Shield ’82 entailed the activation of nearly every B-52 in the Air Force inventory, along with heightened alert status for the other components of the U.S. nuclear triad, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Most SAC bombers were deployed on simulated attack missions on the Soviet Union or possibly China, and at least one Minuteman ICBM was test-fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California toward the Kwajalein test range in the western Pacific, an event I was allowed to witness.5
Although I was given a time, date, and place to appear for my B-52 flight, many aspects of the exercise were kept secret from rank-and-file personnel until the last minute in order to test the ability of air and ground crews to launch the bombers on short notice. Once arrived at Mather Air Force Base in California, I was fitted with a flight outfit and oxygen gear and seated in a crew holding area until a Klaxon sounded, indicating an emergency takeoff. Pilots and crews raced to their planes—each 160 feet of dull-gray metal with distinctive swept-back wings and a low-hanging belly capable of delivering 70,000 pounds of nuclear or conventional ordnance. They were already lined up on the runway in a flight-ready condition, allowing their immediate launch in the event of a Soviet missile strike.
As the flight commenced, the mission was revealed: fly halfway across the Pacific and, after being refueled over Hawaii, reverse course and drop simulated bombs on a target on the U.S. West Coast, presumably a stand-in for Vladivostok or another key location in Russia’s Far East. Periodically during the flight, a radio speaker would broadcast the alphanumeric codes that constitute an emergency action message, a classified directive from nuclear command centers to execute a preplanned action. Each time, the pilot or co-pilot would open a safe in a nearby compartment and remove a red loose-leaf binder with the corresponding actions for each coded signal. These provided instructions on which course of action to follow. In the event of an actual war, they would direct the plane to a predesignated target and indicate which bombs to drop where.
Eventually, we were ordered to deliver the bomber’s simulated nuclear payload on Mono Lake, an iconic tourist site on the California-Nevada border. To get there, the B-52 flew down the spine of the Sierra Nevada mountain range at treetop level. On each approach to a new ridgeline, the pilot appeared to struggle to keep the 183,500-pound plane from crashing into the tallest trees. Upon landing at Mather, 24 hours after departing, that pilot, a 20-something-looking fellow with much older eyes, said on the intercom, “Well crew, we cheated death one more time.”
The Origins of the B-52
The B-52 Stratofortress descended from the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a four-engine heavy bomber introduced during World War II for use in strategic bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan. The concept of strategic air warfare, or the use of bombers to attack an enemy’s war-making capacity at the rear, as distinct from the tactical use of planes in attacks on frontline troops, was first introduced during World War I. Among its earliest advocates was Lieutenant Colonel Lendrum “Billy” Mitchell, commander of the U.S. Army air component. Mitchell and his associates theorized that enemy forces could be more easily defeated if their factories were no longer able to produce the guns, fuel, ammunition, and other essentials needed to sustain combat. Although rebuffed during World War I, Mitchell’s ideas gained a following among Army Air Corps officials during the interwar period and had a significant influence on U.S. and Allied strategic planning during World War II.6
In consonance with Mitchell’s theories, U.S. and UK strategists determined that they could shorten the war and curtail enemy resistance on the battlefield by inflicting heavy damage on Germany’s and Japan’s industrial and transportation capabilities, especially railroads, refineries, and weapons plants.7 To conduct such strategic air assaults, the United States mass-produced heavy bombers capable of delivering large payloads of ordnance on distant enemy targets. At the start of the war, most of these attacks were conducted by the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, first developed in the mid-1930s. It was succeeded in 1944 by the B-29, a much larger and more capable bomber. Most of these planes were deployed against Japan, where General Curtis LeMay, commander of the 20th U.S. Air Force, used them in nighttime incendiary attacks on urban centers. B-29s of the 20th Air Force were also used to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.8
After those massively destructive bombings, U.S. strategists assumed that nuclear munitions would be the deciding weapon of war and would be delivered to enemy territory by long-range bombers such as the B-29. To provide the United States with the capabilities for such operations, the U.S. Army Air Forces created SAC in 1946 and began developing successors to the B-29. This effort was accelerated in 1947 when Congress, recognizing the centrality of airpower in modern warfare, converted the Army Air Forces into an independent military service, the U.S. Air Force.
By 1948 the pursuit of more-capable bombers had produced two new models: the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, a piston engine-powered aircraft, and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, the first jet-powered U.S. bomber.9 Although more capable than the B-29, the B-36 and B-47 were considered by many strategic air warfare enthusiasts to lack the combination of speed and range needed to perform the pivotal role expected of bombers in the new era of nuclear warfare. Accordingly, SAC, led after October 1948 by LeMay, commenced a search for a superior aircraft. In 1950, Boeing was authorized by SAC to proceed with development of a new design, which became the B-52 prototype. Two years later, the finished aircraft conducted its first flight; seven months later, the Air Force ordered its first combat-ready versions.10
For the next 20 years, the Stratofortress was largely assigned by SAC to a nuclear strike function in accordance with strategic bombing doctrine and the assumption that any conflict with the Soviet Union would entail massive nuclear attacks on Soviet territory. That was before the widespread deployment of ICBMs and SLBMs, when only long-range bombers such as the B-52 were thought capable of performing that mission. The Stratofortress was then perceived as the symbol of global nuclear annihilation, a status confirmed by its conspicuous role in the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove.”
B-52 Operations in Vietnam
The onset of the Vietnam War in 1964 posed a conceptual challenge to Air Force leadership. LeMay, then chief of staff, urged the use of SAC bombers in an orthodox strategic air campaign to break North Vietnam’s will and capacity to support the guerrilla uprising in the South, but Defense Secretary Robert McNamara viewed the war as a limited conventional conflict and chose to employ the BUFFs in an essentially tactical role, using them to drop conventional bombs on guerrilla strongpoints and provide close-air support to U.S. and allied combat units in the South. B-52s commenced these missions in June 1965 and soon became a ubiquitous presence in the war zone. To enhance their bomb-delivery capacity, all B-52Ds underwent a modification, nicknamed “Big Belly,” which increased their capacity from 27 to 84 conventional 500-pound bombs. By 1966, the BUFFs were dropping 8,000 tons of these bombs on enemy positions in South Vietnam every month.11
As the war ground on and U.S. success appeared increasingly remote, the BUFFs were used in a more typical strategic fashion to degrade enemy supply lines and logistical facilities in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. At U.S. President Richard Nixon’s behest, B-52s struck such targets in Cambodia in March 1969 under a secret operation code-named Menu. In another operation, called Commando Hunt, B-52s attacked key bottlenecks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, as well as bridges and other transportation nodes in southern North Vietnam.12
It was only toward the end of the war, that B-52s were used in a truly strategic manner, consistent with the thinking of LeMay and SAC’s early pioneers. On March 30, 1972, in what was termed the Easter Offensive, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) leadership launched its largest operation of the war, sending an estimated 14 NVA divisions into the South and endangering key cities, including Saigon. Nixon responded with an all-out air offensive against the North, called Linebacker I, which targeted railroad yards, petroleum storage facilities, and major bridges.
The NVA was eventually halted by superior U.S. firepower, setting the stage for peace negotiations in Paris. When these talks reached a stalemate in late 1972, Nixon ordered a new air offensive against North Vietnam, Linebacker II, that targeted key facilities in and around Hanoi and Haiphong for the first time in the war. By the time these “Christmas bombings” ended on December 29, B-52s had conducted 729 missions in 11 days and dropped 15,000 tons of ordnance on the North. Fifteen B-52s were shot down during this campaign, the largest number ever lost in combat.13
To this day, analysts and historians debate the effectiveness of these B-52 operations in advancing U.S. war objectives. There is general agreement that the use of the BUFFs to pulverize enemy positions in the South, especially in battles around Saigon, helped the United States and its South Vietnamese allies overcome lightly armed guerrilla forces. Yet, extensive Menu and Commando Hunt operations in Cambodia and Laos, respectively, never halted the flow of arms and personnel from the North to the South, nor did they prevent the NVA’s Easter Offensive. The 1972 Christmas bombings helped solidify domestic opposition to U.S. involvement in the war, provoking widespread condemnation and protests. Although Linebacker II was followed by the return of North Vietnamese negotiators to the Paris talks and the signing of a peace accord, the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces from the South left governmental forces there at a significant disadvantage. In 1975 they finally succumbed to the North.14
If anything can be said about the B-52 experience in Vietnam, it may be that it solidified the plane’s reputation as a terrifying killing machine. Nobody who watched television from that time can forget the images of the BUFFs dropping bomb after bomb on the unprotected landscape, leaving fires, explosions, and massive craters in its wake, along with the gruesome remains of men, women, and children. Enemy survivors, questioned afterward, speak of the enormous trauma they suffered from these raids. From then on, the B-52 would be valued as much for its ability to instill fear in opponents as for its capacity to deliver munitions on the battlefield.
B-52s in the 21st Century
After the Vietnam War, the B-52 was relegated largely to its prewar role as a mechanism for delivering nuclear munitions on the Soviet Union. Many older BUFFs were retired, and the remaining fleet, mostly later “G” and “H” models, was refitted with modern avionics to enable penetration of enemy airspace. When Reagan took office in 1981 and nuclear war with the Soviet Union again seemed conceivable, the crews of these surviving aircraft were retrained for long-range nuclear strike missions of the sort replicated in Global Shield ’82.15
During the ensuing years, ICBMs and SLBMs overtook the B-52s as the primary systems for delivering nuclear weapons. These missiles are considered more reliable and survivable than long-range bombers and can deliver their warheads with far greater accuracy. Even so, the BUFFs were retained in the strategic arsenal, partly because of the continued political sway of SAC and its successor organization, the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), and partly because they provide senior officials with flexibility. B-52s can be launched quickly in a crisis and, once launched, can be called back midflight if senior officials conclude that a presumed nuclear threat has been falsely identified, maneuvers that missiles cannot perform. B-52s also have been retained in the inventory because their intercontinental range and large ordnance capacity allow them to be employed in various nonnuclear operations. These include, for example, the use of conventional bombs and missiles to strike enemy troop formations and attacks on vital rear-area targets, such as air bases and command facilities.
During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, B-52s played a significant combat-support role by pulverizing enemy positions ahead of advancing U.S. troops and attacking Iraqi supply lines to the rear. B-52s were again used in 2001 during Operation Enduring Freedom to attack Taliban positions around Kabul and later to provide close-air support for U.S. troops fighting remnants of the regime. Two years later, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the BUFFs were employed to attack Iraqi combat formations at the front and to destroy high-value targets in and around Baghdad.16 By this time, B-52s had been equipped to carry a wide variety of precision-guided munitions, including stand-off weapons that could be fired far from their target, thereby sparing the relatively slow-moving BUFFs from attack by enemy anti-aircraft guns and missiles.
Although largely sidelined in the war on terrorism, the B-52 has gained renewed saliency in the era of great-power competition. As initially formulated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, this outlook holds that a rising China and newly assertive Russia have come to replace Islamic terrorists as the main threat to national security and that, as a consequence, the U.S. military must be retooled for the “high-end fight” against these “near-peer” adversaries. Citing the growing threats posed by China and Russia, the National Defense Strategy and a companion document, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, call for the modernization of the entire nuclear triad and the replacement of many of its components with entirely new systems, among them a new strategic bomber, the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider. Although the initial flight of the first prototype B-21 is scheduled for 2022, it will be many years before B-21s join the bomber fleet in large numbers, and the B-52H will continue as the mainstay of the triad’s air leg until that time. To ensure that the B-52 remains combat worthy, the Air Force recently awarded Rolls-Royce North America a $2.6 billion contract to replace the plane’s existing Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofan engines with a more modern and capable type, the F130.
Aside from its enduring role as a nuclear delivery system, the BUFF’s main function today is to serve as a flying platform for the launch of advanced conventional weapons against high-value enemy targets, such as radar stations, missile batteries, and command centers. This was a key part of its mission during the 2003 Iraq War and often figures in combat exercises conducted by the Air Force Global Strike Command, the STRATCOM component established in 2009 to oversee all B-52 bomber wings. This command regularly dispatches B-52s on long-range missions intended to demonstrate its capacity to support forward-deployed U.S. and allied forces by bringing an array of advanced conventional and nuclear weapons to bear on adversary forces.
On some occasions, these missions extend beyond training and reassuring allies to intimidating potential adversaries. In such cases, B-52s engage in conspicuous simulated attack maneuvers in the vicinity of enemy cities and military installations. A revealing example was a September 2020 mission by two Minot-based BUFFs that included a mock attack on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. The two bombers approached Kaliningrad from the sea, then swung east and passed the enclave from above the Suwalki Gap, a narrow stretch of land connecting Poland and Lithuania and dividing Kaliningrad from Belarus, before turning west over Sweden and returning to Fairford. At about the same time, another B-52 from Minot conducted a mock attack run over the Black Sea near Crimea. These maneuvers, closely observed by the Russian military, can only be described as intended to remind Russian leaders of the U.S. ability to conduct powerful attacks on their prized assets.17
When conducting such simulated strike missions, the BUFF is assumed to be armed with advanced standoff weapons of the sort used in the Iraq War. Yet, the bombers are now being fitted to carry a new type of conventional weapon, the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). This new missile will employ a booster rocket to attain hypersonic speeds of more than five times the speed of sound and an unpowered glide vehicle to strike high-value, time sensitive targets in enemy territory. During its most recent test on December 15, 2021, the AGM-183A failed to launch from its B-52 pylon (the third time it did not operate properly), setting back Air Force plans to begin ARRW production in 2022.18 B-52s assigned to nuclear missions carry nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which are also being modernized with a new variant known as the long-range standoff weapon.
Although the B-52’s function in U.S. nuclear war-planning has contracted over the years, it remains today what it has been for seven decades, a powerful symbol of the U.S. long-range strike capability. Through sheer size, conspicuous appearance, and the ability to deliver massive loads of ordnance, the bomber immediately connotes an incipient potential to inflict catastrophic harm on those who run afoul of U.S. and allied security interests. No wonder then that the Air Force deployed those B-52Hs to Fairford on February 10 as Russia prepared to undertake what has proved to be the largest land war in Europe since World War II.
1. Thomas Newdick, “B-52 Bombers Return to Europe at a Very Tense Time,” The Drive, February 11, 2022, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/44257/b-52-bombers-return-to-europe-at-a-very-tense-time.
2. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “United States Nuclear Weapons, 2021,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 77, No. 1 (2021), pp. 43–63.
3. John A. Tirpak, “Rolls-Royce Wins B-52 Re-engining Program Worth $2.6 Billion,” Air Force Magazine, September 24, 2021.
4. For background, see Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), pp. 145–152.
5. For background on Global Shield ’82, see J.C. Hopkins and Sheldon A. Goldberg, “The Development of the Strategic Air Command 1946–86,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Strategic Air Command, 1986, p. 247. See also Bruce Eickhoff, “SAC Trains the Way It Would Fight,” Air Force Magazine, February 1, 1982.
6. See John F. Guilmartin Jr., “Strategy: Air Warfare Strategy,” in The Oxford Companion to American Military History, ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 690–691. See also Lee B. Kennett, A History of Strategic Bombing (New York: Scribner, 1982).
7. See Richard G. Davis, “World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Europe,” in The Oxford Companion to American Military History, ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 832–833; Conrad C. Crane, “World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Japan,” in The Oxford Companion to American Military History, ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 833–834.
8. Crane, “World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Japan,” p. 834.
9. Bill Yenne, B-52 Stratofortress: The Complete History of the World’s Longest Serving and Best Known Bomber (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2012), pp. 23–25.
10. Ibid., pp. 27–37. See also Walter J. Boyne, Boeing B-52: A Documentary History (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 1994), pp. 43–67.
11. John Darrell Sherwood, “Vietnam War, U.S. Air Operations in the,” in The Oxford Companion to American Military History, ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 768–769.
12. Ibid., p. 769.
13. See Boyne, Boeing B-52, pp. 95–102; Yenne, B-52 Stratofortress, pp. 91–99.
14. See Sherwood, “Vietnam, U.S. Air Operations in the,” p. 769. See also Stephen Ambrose, “The Christmas Bombing,” HistoryNet, September 29, 2017, https://www.historynet.com/the-christmas-bombing/; Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989).
15. See Eickhoff, “SAC Trains the Way It Would Fight.”
16. Yenne, B-52 Stratofortress, pp. 121–131, 145–157.
17. David Axe, “U.S. Air Force B-52s Just Flew a Mock Bombing Run on Russia’s Baltic Fortress,” Forbes, September 25, 2020.
18. Valerie Insinna, “Air Force Hypersonic Weapon Runs Into Trouble After a Third Failed Test,” Breaking Defense, December 20, 2021, https://breakingdefense.com/2021/12/air-force-hypersonic-weapon-runs-into-trouble-after-a-third-failed-test/.
Michael T. Klare is professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of fifteen books, including most recently All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change.