Cold War Bomber B-52 Gets New Lease on Life Amid U.S. Tensions with China, Russia

One of the oldest in-use assets of the U.S. military has seen something of a rebirth in recent years, as the United States once again sets its sights on geopolitical rivals amassing new and powerful tools of their own.

First flown nearly seven decades ago in 1952, the B-52 Stratofortress has been in continuous service with the U.S. Air Force since 1955. The heavy bomber pioneered the aerial leg of the U.S. military's nuclear triad of air, land and sea delivery systems, and it's set to receive some refurbishments to keep it operational until at least the middle of this century.

That extension will give it a roughly 100-year run in the skies with a seemingly ever-evolving capacity.

"The B-52 has and will continue to serve as a vital component of the nuclear triad," the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command, which is tasked with the military's strategic deterrence and long-range strike capabilities, told Newsweek. "Originally designed as a high-altitude, high-speed penetrating nuclear bomber, the B-52 now provides long-range cruise missile carriage and launch capabilities using the AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM)."

"Over the next decade," the command added, "the B-52 will receive the ALCM's follow-on in the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) missile."

The nuclear-tipped LRSO will be capable of striking targets up to an estimated 2,500 kilometers, or over 1,550 miles away. To ensure compatibility with this new weapon and other necessary modernizations, modern B-52s built 50 years ago were also to be refitted with new-age electronics and hardware.

"This venerable 1960s-era platform is undergoing extensive modernization, including a new radar, new engines, and upgraded Nuclear Command, Control and Communications capability, while ensuring its integration with future weapon systems such as the Long Range Stand-off Weapon," the command said.

"Once these efforts are complete, the aircraft will have sufficient structural longevity to serve into the 2050s," the command added.

This timeline was echoed by Jennifer Wong, who serves as Bombers Senior Program Director for Boeing, the company that has produced the B-52 since its inception. She said the U.S. Air Force currently fields 76 of the warplanes, and would continue to do so through high-tech modifications including a Commercial Engine Replacement Program, Radar Modernization Program and an Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite.

Wong told Newsweek that further fixes would "help solidify it as the primary platform for current hypersonic weapon development and employment, enabling the B-52 to deliver game-changing weapons in future conflicts if needed."

Such programs are vital as the U.S. struggles to stay ahead on key capabilities while its top two competitors, China and Russia, rapidly pursue new weapons technologies.

In many respects, the B-52 remains the best bet for the U.S.

"No other combat aircraft can deliver such a large payload, farther and faster," Wong said. "The B-52 can, with inflight refueling, strike at any point on the globe within hours, from home bases. No other country has that capability. The B-52 alone has ability to carry outsized future weapons on its wing pylons and deliver those weapons worldwide. That's why the U.S. Air Force is modernizing the aircraft to serve another three decades."

B-52, drop, Guided, Bomb, Unit, 38, Jordan
A photo shows a U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress dropping Guided Bomb Unit-38's during a combined live-fire demonstration during Exercise Eager Lion in Wadi Shadiya, Jordan on May 18, 2015. First flown in 1952, the B-52 has been in service with the U.S. Air Force since 1955 and, after nearly two decades of use in the so-called "War on Terror," the Cold War-era strategic bomber is once again taking a frontline role in deterring attacks from U.S. geopolitical rivals. Corporal Sean Searfus/Command Element Marine Forces Central Command Forward/Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade

The outsized role of the B-52 makes it "the backbone of Air Force Global Strike Command's bomber fleet." This moniker, however, is only one of a slew of nicknames regarding its appearance, including the unflattering "Big Ugly Fat Fellow," or BUFF, a phrase in which the last word was inserted by U.S. officials in lieu of an expletive beginning with the same letter.

But the B-52 has also played a major part in U.S. conventional warfare, including in devastating air campaigns over Vietnam and later Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Global Strike Command described the aircraft as "an oft-requested asset by our senior political and military leaders," who are now overseeing the updates to the old warrior in response to a changing threat environment.

One former B-52 radar operator, who requested to be identified simply as Matt, told Newsweek that given the advent of what the U.S. has deemed great power competition with the likes of China and Russia, "you're seeing a definite shift across many weapons systems and platforms."

China, Peoples, Liberation, Army, H6-K, bombers
Chinese Xian H-6K jet bombers drop payloads during the Tsentr-2019 exercise hosted by Russia in September 2019. That same year, the People's Liberation Army Air Force debuted the even newer H-6N, which is believed to possess hypersonic standoff capabilities. Chinese People's Liberation Army

"The BUFF certainly has had many mission changes over its operational lifetime," he said. "With the U.S. changing its focus to near-peer adversaries, the B-52 will once again play a big role as a stand-off weapons platform."

Matt was only on his second day of active duty when the 9/11 attacks occurred, killing 3,000 people and sparking a "War on Terror" that continues to this day, even after the withdrawal from a two-decade conflict in Afghanistan in August.

While he said the "main focus" during that time was the back-to-back war efforts launched in Afghanistan and Iraq by the administration of President George W. Bush, he added that "we still trained for nuclear and conventional missions against near-peer adversaries."

Matt was stationed for some time at one of the Air Force's major Asia-Pacific outposts for B-52s, the U.S. territory of Guam. Here, B-52s have been strategically deployed in response to a perceived threat posed by North Korea and the People's Republic of China.

"My deployments to Guam in the mid-2000s were considered 'bomber presence' missions in the Pacific," Matt said. "While one B-52 squadron participated in operations in the Middle East, another participated in continuous bomber presence operations in the Pacific. I enjoyed that mission. It let NK [North Korea] and PRC [People's Republic of China] know we were out there."

Though he said he had never been "intercepted" by another nation's aircraft, he did recall "being tracked" once or twice while over the Pacific. He said it was a fairly common practice of North Korea and China, which he described as their "taking a look at you" with their equipment.

He said he felt that, given the B-52's intensive history, the Cold War-era posture of preparing for standoff missions is not "something that will have to be relearned, the focus will just need to shift."

"B-52 aircrews are world-class, strategic and tactically sound aviators, and they have a multitude of mission sets they have to train on," Matt said. "They still have to maintain qualifications for all weapons the BUFF is able to employ, so I would imagine that the transition would be easy."

It's just a matter of rethinking and changing the strategies and tactics from the way the BUFF has been used in combat over the past 20 years in the Middle East to how we potentially could be fighting near-peer adversaries in the future," he added.

He did not foresee a return just yet to the "Cold War days of 24/7/365 alert," but thought it more likely that there would be an "increase in the number of alert exercises that are done."

"Usually each squadron on annual basis will sit alert for a day or two and then scramble the jets in a MITO (minimum interval take-off) and try to get all the jets off within a certain amount of time...usually just a few minutes," Matt said. "The jets are loaded with inert nuke missiles (ALCM without the actual nuke In it). I could see those types of exercises happening more often as a show of force measure/deterrent."

Russia, Tu-95MS, bomber, attack, Syria
A Russian Tupolev Tu-95MS fires a Kh-101 cruise missile at a militants' position in eastern Syria on September 26, 2017. Russia's largely successful campaign in Syria gave it the opportunity to test newly acquired and modernized armaments. Russian Ministry of Defense

In the early decades of the B-52's service, the only rival superpower to deter was the Soviet Union, whose collapse in the early 1990s set Russia's military back drastically.

Since first coming to power at the turn of the 21st century, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has set out to modernize his nation's armed forces and develop advanced weapons that could overcome even the most advanced defenses of the U.S.

During this time, he also forged a strategic partnership with neighboring China, where since 2013 President Xi Jinping has embarked on a massive military modernization program of his own, vowing to possess a "world-class" armed forces by 2050. In a number of ways, the People's Liberation Army has already surpassed the Russian Armed Forces, In some key areas, it has overtaken the U.S. armed forces as well.

Both Beijing and Moscow have deployed responses to the B-52, and continue to advance them. Matt said that China's Xian H-6 and Russia's Tupolev Tu-95, called "Bear" by the U.S.-led NATO military alliance, "are probably the most similar platforms to the BUFF."

"Both are aircraft developed during the 1950s, like the B-52, and both are very capable aircraft," he said. "It's hard to say what their roles would be exactly if war ever broke out, but they are their workhorse bombers similar to the BUFF."

Russia's armed forces, he noted, also "have the Tu-22M3 and Tu-160," nicknamed "Blinder" and "Blackjack" by NATO. Matt said these warplanes are "more advanced than the Bear and probably on par with the B-1," another U.S. bomber.

But he emphasized that, in particular, "the Chinese have really stepped up their game with aircraft design and testing over the past decade or so," including the development of the Xian H-20, which he said "is similar to the B-2," the U.S. heavy stealth bomber, and "could be operational within the decade."

A Chinese H-6K bomber and then a Russian Tu-95MS bomber can be seen from the view of a Russian jet during a joint patrol over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea on December 22, 2020.

Dmitry Stefanovich, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council who serves as a research fellow at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations' Center for International Security in Moscow and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg, Germany, described the Tu-95MS variant as "an old, but continuously upgraded heavy bomber."

"Modernized versions are capable of carrying and launching the Kh-101/102 family of extra long range cruise missiles, as well as older designs," Stefanovich told Newsweek. "It is also very useful for deterrent missions due to its impressive looks."

He noted that the Tu-160 and Tu-22M3 were also "receiving upgrades, and the production of the former one is being restarted, but the "next-generation heavy bomber known as PAK DA, which might be similar to the American B-2 and B-21, is experiencing delays."

B-52, ARRW, hypersonic, missile, flight, test
The 419th Flight Test Squadron successfully conducts the first flight test of the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, using a B-52 at Edwards Air Force Base, California on June 12, 2019. Another key test of the weapon, conducted in April 2021, was declared a failure by the U.S. Air Force, marking a setback, as Russia and China counted a number of recent successes in the field of new-age hypersonic weapons. Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Christopher Okula/U.S. Air Force

As for China's H-6, Stefanovich noted that it was "based on an old Soviet Tu-16 design, although with considerable upgrades."

The two countries had an early history of cooperation, but fell out over ideological differences in the middle of the Cold War. Today, however, Putin and Xi regularly celebrate what they both consider to be the best relations between their countries in modern history.

This relationship is reflected in a growing military cooperation.

"Joint patrols by Russian and Chinese heavy bombers are becoming routine, and such pooling of resources is an important trend," Stefanovich said. "The biggest difference compared to the U.S. is that both Russia and China lack air refueling and aerial early warning and control aircraft capability, although there, too, some growth is ongoing."

In addition to developing competing platforms, Russia and China are also developing capabilities to defend from incoming attacks, including the ability to knock the large and relatively slow-moving B-52 out of the sky altogether if necessary.

"Russia invested heavily in all sorts of air defense systems, capable of destroying both the attacking aircraft and incoming missiles at different ranges and protecting infrastructure and forces," Stefanovich said.

These systems include the S-300, S-350, S-400, the new S-500 as well as the Buk-M3, Tor and S-300V4 complexes.

"Another important development is the re-establishment of early warning radar coverage around Russian borders," he said, "and especially the construction of over-the-horizon radars (Konteiner) capable of detecting groups of aircraft and missile salvoes from thousands of kilometers."

"And, of course, the continued development of jet fighters is important," Stefanovich said. "For Su-35 and Su-57, as well as older platforms, such aircraft as B-52 is an easy target, not to mention the venerable but still extremely capable MiG-31, which routinely trains in intercepting not only the aircraft, but the cruise missiles as well."

China also has fast fighter jets, many of them also modeled on older Russian models with modern-day upgrades. In terms of anti-aircraft and anti-missile capabilities, Stefanovich said that "Chinese Air Defense development generally follows the Russian footsteps, but still somewhat lags behind."

One key advantage China does have is in its deployment of anti-aircraft systems across the militarized reefs and islets that spot the South China Sea. These remote land masses also host landing strips utilized by Chinese bombers.

HAWC, hypersonic, missile, concept, drawing
An artist's conception published on September 27 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency depicts the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) shortly after a successful free flight test of an actual prototype. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

But as Russia and China continue to hone their state-of-the-art hypersonic weapons capabilities, the B-52 continues to serve as a candidate for the Pentagon's own hypersonic program, which includes prototype missiles like the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (LRRW) and Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC).

"B-52 serves a test bed and probably a future platform for these new beasts," Stefanovich said. "If the U.S. side will be able to achieve the desired capabilities for these weapons and mate them with the B-52, it can compress the decision-making time frame on the 'defending side,' thus leading to a bigger threat of inadvertent escalation."

"Finally," he added, "the B-52 is capable of deploying 'precision' naval mines, which can effectively lock parts of the adversary navies in port or behind maritime chokepoints."

But he said Moscow and Beijing at present had no plans to take on the Pentagon directly, but rather seek to ensure that their forces too could present formidable deterrents in the event of a potential crisis or even conflict.

"I am confident that there is little interest in challenging the U.S., only in terms of depriving it of the 'all-domain superiority,' which is hard to agree to for any sovereign state," Stefanovich said. "As for deterrence, well, so far deterrence works, although overall U.S. heavy bomber capability is more impressive."

US, Air, Force, B-52, B-2, B-1
Football fans watch a U.S. Air Force flyover of strategic bombers (from L) B-52H Stratofortress, B-2 Spirit and B-1B Lancer as they gather outside of the Raymond James Stadium during the Super Bowl match between Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa, Florida on February 7. Though the U.S. continues to dominate the skies, Russia and China seek to close the gap to ensure they too maintained powerful deterrents against potential enemy action. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images