How America’s Ultimate Bomber Evolved – The B-52

YouTube / Found And Explained

Loud, unreliable, killed more pilots than most of the other bombers in the US fleet, yet more than seven decades after its first flight, it’s still in operational service. 

In this post, we’ll walk you through how the B-52 became what it is today, and why on earth hasn’t been replaced. 

Shiny New Bomber

After the war ended, the USAF was inspired by the jet evolution and wanted a shiny new bomber. However, building a new bomber wasn’t easy as the development process was long and ever-changing. 

From the first design model 462 presented in 1946 to the final b-52a variant in 1952, there were several designs and upgrades which thoroughly changed the original design as new requirements rolled out. 

Ultimate American Bomber

From 1954 to 1961, the B-52 underwent eight different iterations, eventually ending with a turbofan-powered B-52h which is a variant still used today. 

But why seven modifications throughout seven years? Well, the plane had a number of issues that needed to be worked on and Boeing was trying to perfect the design with every iteration. 

America’s Primary Long-Range Bomber

After the B-58 and the XB-70 both being discarded by the Air Force the B-52 remained America’s main long-range bomber. It was widely used during the Vietnam War to rain bombs on air raids and even managed to score air-to-air kills.

Since the plane was designed during the tail gunner era, it scored kills on Vietnamese MiGs during the war. 

Missile Carrier

With the development of the AGM-8 cruise missiles, the B-52 became a missile carrier as well. However, it was instantly obsolete against Soviet defense systems even back during the Vietnam War when many AGMs were shot down by AA fire. Thus, the new role of the B-5 would be launching missiles outside of the range of enemy AA or covered bombing enemies in uncontested airspace. 

This is precisely what it did in Iraq. B-52s were widely used in the Gulf War during the 1990s, dropping 40% of total ordnance on Saddam’s army. However, during one accident where an AGM-88 anti-radar missile was shot and damaged the B-52, the government decided to take off all tail guns from the B-52. 

While the bomber that got hit landed safely, it means there are no more air-to-air kills for the B-52. 

Invaluable Asset

B-52 proved to be an invaluable asset to the Navy, utilized for maritime reconnaissance. They’re also equipped with harpoon anti-ship missiles and anti-ship mines they could drop from the air, making them the perfect bomber for the Navy. 

During the 1980s, Soviet pilots tried to take photos and fly at low altitudes. The US Navy wanted to counter this treat and started practicing the detection of low-flying aircraft with their fighter jets. 

So, what’s the future of the B-52? Currently, a new major upgrade is being envisioned for the B-52 fleet, taking it to the next generation. Outdated and used-up engines will be replaced by a new Rolls-Royce F-130 turbofan engine and other upgrades like radars and sensors. This may end up as the last version, the B-52k variant of the Stratofortess with a lifespan of somewhere into 2050.