Swiss Army Bomber

B-52 remains one of Air Force’s most versatile aircraft

Compiled by Airman magazine staff

A B-52 Stratofortress leads a formation of two F-16 Fighting Falcons, two Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-2 fighters, two U.S. Navy EA-6B Prowlers and a JASDF E-2C Hawkeye over Guam during exercise Cope North. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey)

A B-52 Stratofortress leads a formation of two F-16 Fighting Falcons, two Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-2 fighters, two U.S. Navy EA-6B Prowlers and a JASDF E-2C Hawkeye over Guam during exercise Cope North. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey)

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For nearly 50 years, the B-52 Stratofortress has been considered by many to be the backbone of the Air Force’s strategic bomber force. Some even refer to the aircraft as the “Swiss army bomber” because of its versatility.

That’s because the long-range aircraft is capable of traveling 8,800 miles before needing to refuel at altitudes up to 50,000 feet. It can carry nuclear or precision-guided conventional ordnance with precision navigational capability. The B-52 can perform strategic attack, close air support, air interdiction, offensive counter-air and maritime operations.

Not many aircraft can boast those claims, and even fewer have been doing it longer than the B-52.

The first B-52A took flight in 1954, and the B model entered service the following year. Nearly 750 B-52s were built, with the last B-52H delivered in October 1962. Current plans are for the B-52 to remain an active aircraft in the Air Force inventory through 2040.

A B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 96th Bomb Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., is prepared for a training mission in support of Red Flag 14-2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Thomas Spangler)

A B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 96th Bomb Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., is prepared for a training mission in support of Red Flag 14-2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Thomas Spangler)

With such a long lifespan, the B-52 has secured a storied past, taking part in many operations, ranging from performing airborne alert patrols during the Cold War to providing close air support through the use of precision guided munitions during Operation Enduring Freedom.

To keep the aging aircraft flying, the B-52 has undergone several upgrades, including receiving the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, which provides improved long-range target detection and identification and continuous stabilized surveillance for missions.

More recently, the Air Force agreed to a $24.6 million agreement with Boeing to develop a modification to existing weapon launchers so the aircraft can carry smart weapons in the bomb bay that will enable aircrews to use the B-52’s entire weapons capacity.

Upon completion of the first phase of the upgrade, the B-52 will be able to hold 24 500-pound Joint Direct Munitions or 20 2,000-pound JDAMs. Later phases will add the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile and its extended-range variant, as well as the Miniature Air Launched Decoy and its jammer variant.

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