Boeing’s follow-on aircraft to the B-47, the B-52 Stratofortress, entered service in 1955. The Stratofortress has been in service for more than fifty years. Certainly one of the most important aircraft ever produced, it was capable of carrying a 40,000-pound payload 8,800 miles. B-52s are closely identified with the Cold War and played a leading role in the Vietnam War, even acting in support of ground operations. They are best remembered, however, for their role in the December 1972 Christmas Bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong.

The mainstay of SAC’s bomber force for most of the Cold War was the Boeing B-52, which was designed in the late 1940s, entered service in 1955, and was still in front-line service at the end of the Cold War. When it entered service the B-52 set new standards for strategic bombers in almost every respect, including the carriage of eight nuclear bombs or up to 40,000 kg of conventional bombs over ranges of up to 12,900 km. In all, 744 were built, many of which were rebuilt several times to keep the force up to date. Although the B-52 started its career as a nuclear bomber, it changed from a high-level to a low-level role, while from the mid-1980s onwards it became a missile launch platform – a less demanding role and more suited to the venerable age of the airframes.

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber first flew in 1954 and remains in active service. It is considered one of the greatest aircraft ever built.

This phenomenal aircraft joined SAC in 1955 and become the enduring long-range strategic bomber of the U. S. fleet throughout the entire Cold War. Continued up- grades allowed the B-52 to continue as the workhorse U. S. strategic bomber into the twenty-first century. With a range of 8,800 miles, the B-52 could carry a phenomenal 40,000 pounds of bombs or missiles. B-52s played a leading role in the Vietnam War, flying in direct support of ground forces in South Vietnam and, in December 1972, bombing Hanoi and Haiphong. In January 1991 a B-52H flew nonstop from Louisiana to Baghdad to drop cruise missiles and return, the longest bombing mission in history.

An aspect of both the 1972 Vietnamese air campaign and the 1973 Middle East war not altogether appreciated is the degree to which both experiences impacted thinking about long-range bombers. At the time of both wars, the major American strategic long-range bomber was the already aging eight-engine Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The history of this remarkable and gigantic airplane, which participated significantly in the Gulf war, is one of constant adaptation to meet changing employment strategies and threats, coupled with a remarkable ability to outlive successors.

The Strategic Air Command originally envisioned the B-52 as a long-range high-altitude bomber carrying the massive multimegaton hydrogen bombs of the mid-1950s and dropping them directly over their targets. Then the Soviet Union developed the SA-2 SAM, which dramatically claimed Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 in 1960, forcing changing the B-52 from a high-altitude penetrator to a low-altitude one, using stand-off weapons such as the Hound- Dog (an early cruise missile), and the later short-range attack missile (SRAM), which entered SAC’s inventory in 1972. Ultimately, when Soviet defenses grew so strong as to prevent B-52 incursions, its purpose switched to that of stand-off air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) carrier. ALCM entered SAC’s operational inventory in 1982. In 1965, the B-52 went to war, but as an “iron bomb” dropper over Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the B-52 flew 126,615 sorties, primarily by Ds, Es, and Fs, earning a reputation as the airplane that North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops feared the most. They flew on battlefield support missions (for example, during the siege of Khe Sanh), and strikes against logistics and supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh trail. In the 1972 Linebacker II campaign over the North, B-52s experienced serious losses from SAMs, losing fifteen to SA-2s during 724 sorties, a loss rate of 2.1 percent (planners had estimated a 3-percent loss rate prior to the raids). In part, the method of bombing-level runs at high altitudes in the face of a missile designed specifically to confront the B-52-played into the hands of Vietnamese air defenders, but deficiencies in the electronic defenses of B-52Gs also contributed as well.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the B-52 constituted the available “big stick”; some went into combat with crews younger than the plane they were flying. Though G model B- 52s did not have the massive capacity that the earlier D, E, and F models did in Southeast Asia, they were, nevertheless, a unique resource in terms of the number of bombs-over fifty-that they could carry. Perhaps even more than this, however, was their psychological impact. Even in the 1990s, as symbol, the B-52 is air power in a way no other air system matches, at once ironic and fitting for a system whose first conceptual requirement dated to 1944. The threat of sending the B-52 to war signals the seriousness with which American leadership views a crisis.

Under present plans, the Air Force hopes to keep the B-52H in service well into the 2030s – beyond the B-52’s eightieth birthday. In January 2003 Air Force Magazine, in an article entitled ‘The Buff at 80?’ confirmed that the B-52 fleet was expected to remain in service until around 2040!

Colonel Michael R. Carpenter, director of plans for USAF’s Ageing Aircraft System Program Office, said Strategic Air Command was ‘obsessed’ with ensuring there was no corrosion on the bombers, and SAC maintainers worked overtime to ensure B-52 airframes stayed in top-notch condition. The B-52 fleet also benefited from the years the aircraft spent sitting on alert, rather than in the air, during the Cold War and from ceding the more stressful flying profiles to B-1 and B-2 bombers. Consequently, B-52 airframes are in relatively good shape for their age. In recent years, the Air Force increased its use of the B-52, sending the aircraft to support operations in Iraq, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. That has led to some new age-related problems. For example [in 2002] the service discovered that 53 of its 94 B-52s showed signs of fuel tank erosion, known as Fuel Tank Topcoat Peeling. Service officials attributed the problem to two factors: an increase in flying hours and a switch from JP-4 to JP-8 jet fuel. ‘Age, fuel, and fuel additives are playing a role in this problem,’ said Rex Cash, B-52 fuels engineer at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. The problem manifested itself in the B-52s when the bombers’ boost pumps began failing at a higher rate. With the increased flying time, B-52s pumped more fuel through their boost pumps in a matter of weeks than they would have used in a normal year’s worth of flying. The Air Force launched a three-year, $12 million study to determine the extent of the problem and potential solutions. According to Cash, if the topcoats need to be replaced in the entire B-52 fleet, the work could require 20,000 man-hours to complete. Officials had no estimate on cost.

The B-52H’s fatigue life is limited by the life remaining in the upper wing surface, which is set at 32,500 hours. In 1999 the average B-52H had amassed 14,700 flight hours, and the fleet leader had reached 21,000 hours. On average, the fleet had 17,800 hours remaining, with utilization averaging 380 flight hours per year. Because relatively little was known about aircraft life expectancy when the B-52 was built, the aircraft was ‘built strong’, and as a result will outlast even the new generation of bombers. If current attrition and utilization rates continue, the air force reportedly expects the total number of Rockwell B-1B Lancers to drop below the minimum required level of eighty-nine aircraft in 2018, while the number of Northrop B-2A Spirits will drop below the minimum of nineteen needed by 2027. By contrast, anticipated attrition and fatigue will not bring the B-52H fleet below the sixty-two required until about 2044!


Bomber designers and the tacticians fought an unending war against the potential defenders in an effort to ensure that the bomber would get through to its targets. In the late 1940s the major threat came from radar-directed anti-aircraft guns, which had reached a considerable degree of sophistication, and the bombers’ first response was simply to fly higher than the effective ceiling of the guns. The next threat was air-defence fighters, and here again the bombers responded by flying higher and faster – there were numerous reports of British and US reconnaissance flights over the USSR in the early 1950s in which the Soviet fighters simply could not reach the same altitude as the intruder.

Electronic countermeasures (ECM) were always used, becoming increasingly sophisticated as time passed. Thus electronic jamming was used to confuse enemy radars, as was ‘chaff’ (strips of metal foil cut to the wavelength of the radar), which was dropped in large quantities, either by the bomber or by specialized escorting aircraft.

One of the earliest devices to help the bomber get through was the US air force’s ADM-20 Quail, which resembled a miniature unmanned aircraft and was dropped over enemy territory, where it flew for some 400 km, using its on-board ECM devices to confuse the enemy as to the strength, direction and probable targets of the incoming bomber force. A maximum of three Quails could be carried by a B-52, and the device was in service from 1962 to 1979.

The main emphasis then turned to stand-off missiles – a concept which, like so many others, had its genesis in Germany, where V-1 missiles had been launched from Heinkel He-111 bombers in 1944–5. The Cold War missiles carried a nuclear warhead and were designed to be launched from the bomber while still outside the range of the enemy air defences. One of the first was the US Hound Dog – a slim missile with small delta wings, and powered by a turbojet – which entered service in 1961. Two Hound Dogs, each with a 1 MT nuclear warhead, were carried beneath the wings of a B-52. The missile could be set to fly at any height between about 50 m and 16,000 m, and had a range at high level of 1,140 km, less at low level. The guidance system was capable of high- or low-level approach, with dog-legs and jinxes to confuse the defence.

The Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM), which entered service in 1972, was a rocket-propelled missile with a 170 kT nuclear warhead and a speed of Mach 3. SRAMs could fly either a semi-ballistic, a terrain-following or an ‘under-the-radar’ flight profile, the latter terminating in a pull-up and high-angle dive on to the target. The range depended on the height, and was from 56 km at low level to 170 km at high level. B-52s normally carried twenty SRAMs, while the FB-111A carried six and the B-1B twenty-four.

The Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) entered service with the US air force in 1982. This weapon had folding wings which extended when it was dropped from the carrier aircraft, and was powered by a small turbojet engine. Designed exclusively for low-level flight, the ALCM used a radar altimeter to maintain height and a map-matching process known as terrain comparison (TerCom) to give very precise navigation. The nuclear-armed version (AGM-96B) had a 200 kT warhead, a CEP of 30 m and a range of some 2,500 km. The AGM-96C was conventionally armed, with a high-explosive warhead, and this version demonstrated its effectiveness and accuracy when thirty-five were launched by B-52s during the Gulf War. B-52s could carry up to twelve and B-1Bs twenty-four.


America’s eight engine monster of a strategic nuclear bomber operated in the main out of the island of Guam during the war and managed to plaster Vietnam and its neighbours with three times the weight of bombs dropped during the whole of World War Two. At first they were not used against North Vietnam. The value of hitting large areas of jungle, which may or may not have contained enemy guerillas, may be questioned but for Linebackers I and II they were finally unleased upon the North’s industrial and transport infrastructure with devastating results.

Eduard Mark’s book Aerial Interdiction: Air Power and the Land Battle in Three American Wars contains a good section about the use of air power against the road network in Laos known as the STEEL TIGER. The interdiction campaign was known as COMMANDO HUNT I-VII and was flown mostly by B-57s and F-4s, but Guam-based B-52s also participated; the B-52 missions were known as ARC LIGHT.

The longest bombing campaign against Laotian targets was operation Barrel Roll (Dec. 1964 – Feb. 1973). B52s had part in this operation. The first time they appeared above Laos was during operation Goodlook.

For defence the BUFFS or Big Ugly Fat ‘Fellas’ were armed with a host of electronic countermeasures gear (which worked best when B-52s combined their efforts) and four radar directed tail mounted 0.5″ machineguns. Two MiG-21s were shot down by B-52s. Twenty nine were lost during the war.

On 8 May 1972, President Richard Nixon, responding to North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive, ordered targets struck throughout North Vietnam. The Paul Doumer Bridge, the Yen Vien rail yards, and POL storage facilities were hit. For the first time, B-52s were used to bomb targets in and around Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor. Operation LINEBACKER lasted until the North Vietnamese leadership negotiated seriously, coming to an end when a peace agreement seem within reach on 23 October 1972. It was the most successful bombing campaign of the war in that it brought Hanoi to the brink of peace. But it took one more bombing campaign to clinch the deal.

When in December 1972 Hanoi recalled its negotiators from the Paris peace talks, Nixon unleashed airpower with a vengeance. During the 11 days of Operation LINEBACKER II, 739 B-52 sorties and 1,200 fighter-bomber sorties struck 334 targets in and around Hanoi, Haiphong, Vinh, and Thanh Hoa. The 20,000 tons of bombs dropped during the so-called Christmas bombing battered rail yards and storage facilities. But most important, airpower rendered North Vietnamese air defenses useless by destroying its air-control headquarters and SAM assembly area. By December 29, North Vietnam was helpless against U.S. airpower. They agreed to negotiate, and the bombing stopped.

Antiwar activists claimed that the Air Force had carpet-bombed Hanoi, and North Vietnam’s propaganda mill produced vivid photographic “evidence” to support those claims. But in reality damage to the city was light, as confirmed by aerial reconnaissance and visitors to the city.

Gulf War

The air campaign destroyed important Iraqi targets along the Saudi border. Night after night B-52s dropped massive bomb loads in classic attrition warfare, and many Iraqi defenders were simply buried alive.

From the first day onward, B-52 strikes every three hours would hammer Iraqi forces. Other attacks would hit ammunition storage and fuel supplies, and deeper interdiction attacks would seek to sever resupply lines and communications into Kuwait, including railroads, bridges, and truck convoys. Air operations began at 6:36 A. M. on January 16, 1991, when the first of seven B-52G Stratofortresses, popularly known as “Buffs,” from the Eighth Air Force left Barksdale AFB on a round-trip mission to Iraq. Eight engines roaring, each “Buff” departed in a mist of spray, lifting off like a ponderous bird into a rain-drenched predawn sky, disappearing quickly into dense cloud. Breaking into the clear, facing a rising sun, the aging B-52s-the most visible symbol of intercontinental air power- began their long voyage. More than twelve hours remained before the fury of Desert Storm fell upon Iraq, but the first mission was already underway, in a true demonstration of Rice’s Global Reach-Global Power doctrine. The seven bombers carried AGM-86C cruise missiles, specially modified versions of the Air Force’s nuclear-tipped AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), intended for eight high-value Iraqi communications, power generation, and transmission facilities. These “Charlie” models replaced the AGM-86B’s nuclear warhead with a 1,000-pound conventional blast-fragmentation warhead, substituting more accurate GPS satellite-based navigation for the nuclear model’s terrain contour-matching guidance system. Repeatedly refueled on their run to the launch tracks located within USCENTCOM’s area of responsibility, the B-52 crews spent a total of two hours apiece hanging behind a tanker. Morning gave way to midday, and finally, night, and still the Stratofortresses made their way to war. As they closed on Iraq, ahead of them, in and around the Gulf, other crews walked out into the night, to risk their own lives aloft.

At bases across Saudi Arabia and Allied Gulf nations, hundreds of strike, suppression, and support aircraft took off amid the thunder of afterburners, forming up, unlit and silent, moving toward the tankers and Iraq. Other B-52Gs, pregnant with bombs, flew toward Iraq from Diego Garcia. Operational security was challenging, and made more so at Dhahran, where a commercial pilot captaining a waiting jumbo jet from a coalition nation impulsively complained to the airport’s tower controllers about a flock of RAF Tornadoes from 31 Squadron that suddenly cut ahead of him from a taxiway and took off into the dark, afterburners flaring. At sea, carriers in the Red Sea and lower Persian Gulf launched dozens of aircraft to protect the fleet and hit selected targets, as two cruisers and a battleship fired the first of 106 TLAMs (Tomahawk land attack missiles) launched against Iraq that day. Air Force and Navy cruise-missile launches held particular significance, for, unlike manned aircraft, the little missiles could not be recalled. Once these missiles left their launch canisters or fell away from their B-52 motherships, there was no turning back: the coalition was at war.

Following the TLAMs came the ALCMs, threading their way with GPS precision after having been air-launched from the Barksdale Buffs. The huge B-52s had arrived at their launch points “within fractions of a second” (as mission commander Lt. Col. Jay Beard recollected) of the planned time, fifteen hours after leaving Louisiana. Thirty-five ALCMs dropped away from their shackles, their tiny switchblade wings and tail surfaces deployed, and, as their small jet engines fired up, the little ALCMs streaked away in anger. As the missiles flew across the Arabian desert toward their targets, the huge Stratofortresses turned toward home, the longest portion of the flight still ahead of them as they bucked heavy headwinds. Postwar analysis indicated that thirty- one of the thirty-five ALCMs launched that night hit their targets, a success rate of nearly 89 percent.

Diego’s B-52G Stratofortresses skimmed the earth at less than 400 feet, stunning defenders with the shattering noise of eight thundering engines, before popping up to bombing altitude and unleashing dozens of bombs on their targets. They were far from alone in the night sky; one Buff copilot yelped, “Look at those guys!” as a pair of F-15Es raced below them at over 600 knots.

Precision strikes were critical for targeting Iraq’s military equipment, but area strikes against Iraqi troop formations were equally important, both for inflicting casualties and inducing surrenders. Here the aging Boeing B-52G Stratofortresses proved particularly devastating. Sometimes “Buff” strikes had a serendipitous result benefiting other attackers. In one case, a Saudi Tornado crew passing over Iraqi forces after bombing Republican Guard tanks saw the ground ahead of them light up with small arms fire. High above them, illuminated by moonlight, were the massive contrails of a cell of three eight-engine Buffs-a sight possessing a breathtaking if deadly beauty. Suddenly, where there had been a hurricane of small arms fire was instead a huge rectangle of massive explosions as the Stratofortresses each unloaded their cargo of bombs. As the shockwaves and blasts dissipated, the Tornado crew flew on, unmolested by any ground fire at all.

Overall, the Stratofortress flew 1,624 sorties in the Gulf war-some from bases in the continental United States (in a true example of global reach and global power), others from Great Britain, Spain, and the Middle East, and from Diego Garcia-and dropped 25,700 tons of munitions, approximately 30 percent of all U. S. bombs. Altogether, 74 of the nation’s 122 B-52Gs, nearly 61 percent, were dedicated to Gulf bombing missions. From the end of the first day onward, they were bombing Republican Guard positions every three hours. Despite the intensity of Iraq’s antiaircraft and missile defenses (which forced special attention by coalition air defense suppression forces to protect the gargantuan Buffs), only one was lost, and that to a noncombat accident while returning to Diego Garcia. The B-52G’s bomb tonnage alone was 42 percent of that dropped by the Air Force overall, and over twice that dropped by all six of the carrier-based air wings in the Gulf war. As had been true in the Vietnam War, prisoner interrogations revealed that the B-52 was the weapon ground forces feared most. Between 20 and 40 percent of Iraqi troops attacked from the air deserted their units prior to G-day, and B-52 strikes appear to have played the major role in forcing their decision. A captured Iraqi general “said he couldn’t walk to the latrine without wondering if a B-52 would bomb him.” One troop commander, interrogated after the war, stated he surrendered because of B-52 strikes. “But your position was never attacked by B-52s,” the interrogator exclaimed. “That is true,” he stated, “but I saw one that had been attacked.”

In sum, the war opened with the full orchestration of Allied land- and sea-based air power. There were electronic warfare jammers, the EF-111A Ravens and EA-6B Prowlers, and the lesser known standoff EC-130H Compass Call; HARM-firing F-4G Wild Weasels and F/A- 18s, hunting for SAMs; F-117As and cruise missiles going to downtown Baghdad; F-15E Eagles, Tornadoes, F-111Fs, and A-6E Intruders, for strikes against key Iraqi airfields and Scud sites; stately eight-engine B-52G Stratofortresses (some of whose crews were younger than the planes they were flying) going after high-value targets; F-15C Eagles and a few F-14A + Tomcats for air superiority sweeps; and F-16C/D Fighting Falcons, Jaguars, and F/A- 18A/C Hornets to suppress enemy air defenses and make the skies safer for more vulnerable attackers such as the B-52s. These were by no means all the types involved in the war. In the first four hours of the air war, nearly 400 Allied strike aircraft from the coalition stormed across Iraq, supported by hundreds of others over the Gulf region and over the fleet at sea. Altogether, in that first night, 668 aircraft attacked Iraq, 530 from the Air Force (79%), 90 from five Navy carriers and the Marine Corps (13%), 24 from Great Britain (4%), and 12 each from France and Saudi Arabia (2% each). In the first 24 hours, over 1,300 combat sorties were flown by American and coalition airmen.

Punitive Raids – Iraq

On 13 November 1997 Iraq demanded that American citizens working for UNSCOM leave the country immediately and three days later President Clinton directed a military force build-up in south-west Asia. On 19 November the 2nd Bomb Wing began deploying an air expeditionary group of six, later eight, B-52H aircraft and over 200 personnel to Diego Garcia in response to the crisis. On 12 February 1998 the 2nd Bomb Wing increased the air expeditionary group at Diego Garcia with an additional six B-52H aircraft and sixty personnel, bringing total deployed assets to fourteen B-52Hs and over 260 personnel.

Diplomacy seemed to deter Iraq and on 30 May HQ Air Combat Command directed all deployed forces to stand down from alert and prepare for redeployment to home stations. On 3 June the first three B-52Hs returned to Barksdale and the remaining deployed aircraft and personnel returned over the next two weeks. Iraq’s continued noncompliance with UN Security Council resolutions marked a crisis point and on 11 November, as the last UNSCOM inspectors departed from Baghdad, President Clinton ordered a military force build-up in south-west Asia under the codename Operation Desert Thunder. On 14 November the 2nd Bomb Wing deployed an air expeditionary group of seven, later nine, B-52H aircraft (one went unservicable on Guam) and 180 personnel to Diego Garcia. There they formed the 2nd Air Expeditionary Group (AEG), commanded by Colonel Robert A. Bruley, Jr. They were joined on 11 December 1998 by seven B-52Hs of the 5th Bomb Wing based at Minot AFB. From 16 to 19 December 1998 the US and Great Britain launched Operation Desert Fox – a series of strong, sustained air and cruise missile attacks against military and suspected NBC-related sites in Iraq. Allied aircraft flew 1,075–1,165 sorties. During the second and third nights of the attack the B-52Hs of the 2nd AEG fired ninety AGM-86C CALCMs against targets in Iraq. On the second night of Desert Fox (the first night of B-52 participation), the B-52Hs flew in two flights of six aircraft each, separated by six hours (each flight also included an initial seventh spare). The lead flight, led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Griffith, commander of the 96th Bomb Squadron, and manned by 96th Bomb Squadron crews, fired forty-one CALCMs. The second flight, led by Lieutenant Colonel Douglas C. Haynor, commander of the 23rd Bomb Squadron and manned primarily by 23rd Bomb Squadron crews (three individual 2nd Bomb Wing crewmembers were in the mix) entered the launch box in the early hours of 18 December 1998. Haynor’s flight fired thirty-three CALCMs. All told, seventy-four CALCMs were fired by the two flights that night. In the evening of 18 December 1998, the 2nd AEG launched a two-ship follow-up strike mission, manned by mixed 20th Bomb Squadron and 96th Bomb Squadron crews and commanded by Major Keith W. Anderson of the 96th Bomb Squadron. The flight launched a final sixteen CALCMs against Iraqi targets. The Desert Fox grand total for the B-52H stood at ninety AGM-86C CALCMs. First Lieutenant Cheryl A. Lamoureux, a 20th Bomb Squadron EWO, became the first woman flier in US Air Force history to fly a combat mission when she participated in the two-ship CALCM strike on the night of 18/19 December. (In mid-1995 2nd Lieutenant Kelly J. Flinn, the first female B-52 pilot in US Air Force history, had undergone crew training with the Formal Training Unit at Barksdale before being assigned to the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota.).

The Balkans

On 22 December the 2nd and 5th Bomb Wings began redeploying to home stations, leaving four B-52Hs on alert at Diego Garcia. On 21 April 1999 the air expeditionary group at Diego Garcia was deactivated after its four B-52s and remaining personnel redeployed to home stations or to RAF Fairford, United Kingdom, in support of Operation Allied Force.

On 17 February 1999 eight B-52Hs at Barksdale forward deployed to RAF Fairford, forming the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron (part of the 2nd Air Expeditionary Group) to take part in Operation Allied Force. This NATO operation was aimed at bombing Serbia in an attempt to halt the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and force the Yugoslav army to withdraw from the territory. On 24 March six of the B-52Hs took part in the first wave of air strikes, firing CALCMs against Serbian targets. Four additional B-52Hs of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot were deployed to Fairford on 27 March and the deployment built up to an eventual peak strength of fourteen. In all, twenty-five individual aircraft deployed during the 78-day campaign, which lasted from 24 March to 20 June 1999. During fifty-seven days of actual air strikes the B-52Hs and B-1Bs at RAF Fairford dropped 11,000 bombs and launched sixty-two ALCMs in 270 sorties.

While Deliberate Force ended well in Bosnia, the continued brutality of the Slobodan Milosevic regime against the Kosovar Albanians created another crisis that rapidly grew in intensity, resulting in growing international unease and concern. After diplomatic efforts and threats of force failed to deter Yugoslavian behavior, NATO resorted to aerospace power (Operation Allied Force), beginning on March 24, 1999. Rapid air attacks by a full range of NATO aircraft followed, including the combat debut of the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber (flying nonstop from the continental United States and dropping up to 16 precision munitions against 16 different targets on a single sortie), as well as showers of air-and- surface-launched cruise missiles. These attacks denied the Milosevic regime the ability to mass forces, hindering their genocidal behavior against the Albanian citizens of Kosovar, most of whom fled the country. They also targeted the Yugoslavian military infrastructure, including munitions stockpiles, manufacturing complexes, airfields, and key bridges. Altogether, NATO airmen flew over 33,000 sorties and struck hundreds of targets, ranging from Yugoslavian troop concentrations attacked by B-1 and B-52 bombers, to tanks and artillery attacked by A-10s and F-16s, to bridges and key strategic targets in the Belgrade region attacked by F-117 and B-2 stealth aircraft. On June 21, with rising public outcry at home against his regime, Milosevic capitulated to NATO’s demands, removing his forces from Kosovo. A year later, as public resentment over his regime continued to grow, he was gone from office.


Aiming to punish those responsible for 9/11, President Bush decided to use his air power and special forces to assist the Afghan Northern Alliance to drive the Taliban from Kabul and destroy al-Qaeda’s presence once and for all under OEF. This was to involve air strikes, using US Navy (USN) and strategic air assets as well as ship and submarine-launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs), to hit terrorist-related facilities, the Taliban’s military infrastructure and their field forces.

OEF was directed by US Central Command (CENTCOM) from McDill Air Force Base, Florida. USN aircraft deployed to the region included F-14 Tomcat and F/A-1 8E/F Super Hornet fighter-bombers and global assets included heavy long-range B-IB, B-2A and B-52H strategic bombers. The US was not able to conduct any regional land-based fighter missions using USAF F-16, as crucially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan refused to allow any attacks to be conducted from their soil. Pakistan’s government, with its Pashtun population, brothers of the Pashtun Taliban, had to walk a diplomatic tightrope.

At least 50 per cent of the targets to be bombed were terrorist related. These included training camps, stores, safe houses and mountain hideouts. The camps were used to train Chechens, Kashmiris, Pakistanis, Saudis, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Uighurs and Yemenis. Their services were then exported back to their home countries. The bulk of the terrorist facilities was in the Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad areas and belonged to al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In particular Kandahar and Jalalabad were the favoured targets, as these locations were where Osama bin Laden and his cronies were most likely to have gone to ground. Kandahar was the stronghold of Bin Laden’s one-time ally, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Since its foundation the Taliban Air Force had been active and had flown over 150 sorties during the campaigns to capture the Northern Alliance’s capital at Taloqan. However, with the loss of Bagram air base in 1998 it was forced to destroy or disable many of its aircraft during its retreat from the Shomali plain. Against the Coalition air campaign the Taliban Air Force initially had about eight MiG-2 1, eight Su-22 and about four L-39 light jets plus a few Mi-8/17 helicopters. Most were simply destroyed on the ground in the opening hours of the air attacks.

Bush’s air war opened on 7 October 2001, with B-1 and B-52 bombers flying from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and B-2s flying from Whitman Air Force Base, Missouri. The latter flew on to Diego Garcia after a record 44 hours in the air and six air-to-air refuellings. These bombers were joined by carrier based F-14 and F/A-1 8 fighter-bombers operating from the aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, while some fifty Tomahawks were also launched. The Royal Navy fired two small batches of TLAMs, and the RAF contributed several hundred reconnaissance and tanker refuelling sorties in support. British air support, although small, was significant compared with that of other nations. France’s contribution consisted of reconnaissance flights using Mirage IVP and C.160G ELINT (Electronic intelligence) aircraft and an intelligence-gathering ship. Italy volunteered tactical reconnaissance, air-to-air refuelling, transport aircraft and a naval group. In addition, Turkey announced it would send special forces to train the Northern Alliance.

Ironically, initially the air campaign did not greatly affect the Taliban’s rudimentary infrastructure or ability to wage war against the Northern Alliance, only its ability to resist Coalition air attack. The Northern Alliance had little in the way of an air force that posed a threat to the Taliban air defences. Until the concentrated attacks on the Taliban’s field forces, the degradation of the Taliban’s communications was the greatest hindrance to their conduct of the civil war against the Northern Alliance. The American special forces’ raids on 19 October 2001 against a command and control facility and an airfield near Kandahar illustrated the Coalition’s freedom of operations on the ground. However, it was B-52 carpet-bombing, coupled with Taliban defections and withdrawals, which produced dramatic results and hastened the end of organised resistance. By the close of October air strikes began to shift away from high-profile urban targets toward Taliban front-line positions.

Heavy strikes, including carpet-bombing, were conducted on 31 October against Taliban forces near Bagram, 30 miles north of Kabul. These attacks lasting several hours were the most intense against Taliban front-line positions since the air campaign began. The following day the strategic Taliban garrison at Kala Ata, guarding the approaches to Taloqan, was also attacked. The raid lasted for over 4 hours and windows were allegedly broken up to 15 miles away as a consequence. Attacks also continued in the Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif areas. Within a week of this intense bombing the Taliban crumbled first at Mazar-e-Sharif, then Kabul and Jalalabad, their forces in headlong retreat to Kandahar.

Sustained raids were conducted on both Zhawar Kili and anti-aircraft defences near the town of Khost. The US feared that Zhawar Kili was going to be another Tora Bora. General Richard Myers of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said, ‘We have found this complex to be very, very extensive. It covers a large area. When we ask people how large they often describe it as huge.’ The camp was composed of three separate training areas and two cave complexes. US Marines and special forces moved into the areas after an initial wave of strikes by B-1 and B-52 bombers and carrier-based Navy fighters. They then piled up unexploded ammunition and heavy weapons, which were destroyed by a second series of air attacks.

Iraq Redux

In January 2002 the spotlight in the ‘War Against Terror’ ‘turned to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. On 29 January President George W. Bush delivered his first State of the Union Address to the nation in which he asserted North Korea, Iran and Iraq constituted an ‘… axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world’. He further noted,

By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic … Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror … This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.

By the time of President Bush’s second State of the Union Address to the nation, in January 2003, it was evident that Saddam Hussein had failed to account for his biological and chemical weapons and 29,984 other prohibited weapons. Bracing the nation for a possible war, President Bush clearly spelt out the consequences of Iraq’s continuing noncompliance with the UN Security Council resolutions: ‘But let there be no misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.’

B-52Hs were again at the centre of air force planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Second Gulf War. In the early days of March 2003 fourteen B-52Hs were deployed to RAF Fairford, from Minot AFB, North Dakota, and another fourteen B-52Hs at Barksdale went to Diego Garcia, to be used as part of the coalition’s ‘shock and awe’ campaign against Iraq. At Fairford the B-52Hs served in the 23rd EBS (because Minot’s 23rd Bomb Squadron was the ‘lead’ unit), 457th Air Expeditionary Group. At Diego Garcia, the B-52Hs formed the 40th EBS of the 40th AEW. From early March, additional B-52Hs were deployed to Andersen AB, Guam, forming the 7th AEW.

The coalition soon seized command of the air. In the months leading up to the war aircraft patrolling Iraqi ‘no-fly’ zones bombed eighty air defence sites and by 25 March Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld could claim ‘total dominance of the air.’ In all nearly 2,000 US and allied warplanes flew 41,404 sorties over Iraq (of which the air force flew 24,196) in the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Freedom began with coalition aircraft conducting strikes to prepare the battlefield. On 20 March six US warships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and two F-117A stealth fighters with no jamming or fighter support attacked leadership targets of opportunity in Baghdad. They dropped four EGBU-27 LGBs and the warships fired more than forty AGM-109 TLAMs. Next day coalition air forces commenced nearly 1,000 strike sorties, marking the beginning of A-Day, the air campaign. Coalition forces seized an airfield in western Iraq and advanced 100 miles into the country. Over the first three weeks of the war USAF crews flew nearly 40 percent of the combat sorties and delivered two-thirds of the munitions tonnage. The rest was divided between the USN, USMC, RAF and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). In all, 15,000 precision guided munitions were dropped and 750 cruise missiles were launched. In contrast to the 1991 war, when nine out of ten expended weapons were unguided ‘dumb’ bombs, about 75 percent of these weapons were precision guided. On 21 March the B-52Hs took part in what has been described as the largest CALCM strike in history, launching seventy-six of more than 140 missiles fired. They took part in the so-called ‘shock and awe’ campaign from the first night of the war, initially attacking and eliminating military and air defence targets in and around Baghdad. The aircraft were subsequently used against deployed Iraqi army and Republican Guard formations and targets.

Bombers of the 7th AEW at Andersen AFB, Guam, mounted 103 bomber sorties, fifty-four of them by the B-52Hs and forty-nine by B-1Bs as part of a surge in operations between 30 March and 2 April 2003 lasting sixty-seven hours. Colonel Jonathan George, 7th AEW commander, was moved to say:

This performance is easily one of the three best military accomplishments that I’ve ever witnessed and clearly the most aggressive self-induced challenge. After this week, I have complete confidence that our team can do anything. Initially, my intent for this effort was to see where we stood as a team, help us mature and determine what our weak areas might be.

George described this test as a bomber version of baseball’s spring training.

I knew that our team would work hard and put forth a great effort. What I wasn’t prepared for was a championship performance. I’ve been around military jets and [operations] for twenty-two years, and no one could have done better. They turned spring training into a winning World Series and lots of people have noticed. We received a load of calls and e-mails asking for a correction to our typos on the sortie count. I’m not sure they believed me when I responded that the 103-sortie count was accurate.

B-52Hs were able to undertake their missions 75 percent of the time and they flew nearly 300 combat sorties over Iraq, each lasting between twelve and seventeen hours on airborne alert, close-air support and interdiction operations, dropping 3.2 million lb of explosives. They also flew psychological missions; dropping nine million leaflets (70 percent of all leaflets for the operation) over the northern half of Iraq. In all, the B-52Hs flew more than 1,600 flying hours and they released more than 2,700 individual weapons. Precision weapons played a far greater role in this campaign than in the First Gulf War, when laser-guided munitions accounted for less than 10 percent of all bombs dropped. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, 68 percent of the 29,199 munitions used were either laser-guided or satellite-guided. These included 6,542 JDAMs, older bombs outfitted with strap-on GPS tail kits. For the first time, some B-52Hs carried JDAMs underwing and CALCMs internally on the same mission. The B-52Hs dropped 1,000 Mk 82 and 150 M117 ‘iron bombs’, forty M-129 leaflet bombs, three hundred GBU-31 JDAMs, fifty CBU-103 and forty CBU-105 cluster bombs. They also launched seventy AGM-86C and ten AGM-86D conventional cruise missiles (the AGM-86C has a fragmentation warhead, the D model a penetrator warhead). The CBU-105 is a ‘smart-guided’ cluster bomb. It disperses smaller bombs that sense the engine heat from armoured vehicles and then fire downward to destroy them. In addition, it is equipped with wind-compensating technology that steers the munitions to precise targets by compensating for launch conditions, wind and adverse weather. On 2 April B-52H crews made history when they dropped six of the sensor-fused cluster bombs on a column of Iraqi tanks headed south out of Baghdad B-52Hs, marking the first operational use of this WCMD variant.

Operation Iraqi Freedom also saw the first combat use of the Litening II laser designation pod, which enables the B-52H to launch laser-guided munitions and hit targets with extreme accuracy. The laser determines the correct GPS co-ordinates for a weapon’s destination and feeds that to the munition so there is no need to enter manually the data. Litening II provides real-time images and allows the radar-navigator to designate the targets and direct laser-guided weapons without having to rely on another aircraft or anyone on the ground to ‘paint’ the target with a separate laser designator. It was developed for fighters in the 1990s and is the predecessor of a more advanced system that the USAF will place on all B-52 aircraft.

Historically, only fighter jets have carried laser-guided bombs. However, the B-52 can carry bombs internally and externally and has the capacity of six or more fighters. It can also loiter at a high altitude and stay on station longer than a fighter. It can therefore stay in the immediate area and engage emerging threats, whereas fighters typically only have enough fuel to fly to their targets and back. As well as providing the B-52H with a self-designation capability, the pod allows its crews to identify targets before releasing their munitions, preventing potential fratricides and improving combat effectiveness. It can also provide real-time battle damage assessment after the bomb is dropped.

Originally, a test of the addition of the pod was not scheduled until June but the B-52H programme at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, fielded the system in about 120 days and testing included a six-sortie trials programme that took less then a month to complete. The 93rd Bomb Squadron, 917th Wing, and the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Barksdale AFB provided aircraft, data analysis and weapons systems operators for the tests and training at the ANG and AFRes test centre in Tucson. Major David L. Leedom of the 93rd Bomb Squadron said:

Usually this type of upgrade could take up to six months but the war pushed it up on the wish list. In Vietnam, for example, we were taking out large areas with the bomber. That’s fine if you are fighting in an organized area and everyone there is a combatant. But the pod allows us to use precision guided missiles and weapons in closer proximity to friendly forces with less collateral damage. Before, we didn’t have any kind of sensors. We were literally looking out of the window with a pair of binoculars. Now, we can see the difference between a Volkswagen and a Ford pickup truck from 30,000 feet. It’s really something.

The trials programme culminated in a test drop in Iraq on 28 March with GBU-12 in conjunction with the Litening II targeting pod. The crew deployed to RAF Fairford (with the first of three Litening-capable aircraft) to use the system operationally. On 11 April a 93rd Bomb Squadron B-52H crew used a Litening II targeting pod to strike targets at an airfield in northern Iraq. They dropped one laser-guided GBU-12 Paveway II munition on a radar complex and another on a command complex at the Al Sahra airfield northwest of Tikrit.

During Iraqi Freedom, the Fairford-based B-52Hs of the 457th AEG flew 120 combat sorties, totalling 1,600 combat hours, while the Diego Garcia-based 40th EBS flew 137 combat sorties, totalling 2,157.5 hours. Crews of the 917th Wing Command flew forty-one combat sorties (twenty-nine with the 40th EBS, twelve with the 457th AEG).

One of the 40th EBS pilots was Lieutenant Colonel Bill Jankowski, an AFRes technician instructor pilot in the 93rd Bomb Squadron, 917th Wing, who was awarded several medals while an O2-A pilot at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam. During the evacuation of Quang Tri in 1972, as a 1st lieutenant, he was directing air strikes when his front engine exploded. He glided down and parachuted out of the burning O-2A. After spending the night on the ground evading capture, two helicopters arrived to retrieve him and some American advisers. Once in the air one of them was hit by a SA-7 and burst into flames and crashed. The helicopter carrying Jankowski went into an auto-rotation and began to fly low over enemy tanks, which shot at it with machinegun fire and forced the crew to land in a rice paddy. Soon after, another helicopter came to retrieve them. Jankowski continued on active duty until 1977, when he joined the ANG. At Battle Creek ANGB, Michigan, he flew O-2 and A-37 aircraft until he transferred to the AFRes to fly A-10As. When the A-10 school closed in 1994 he switched to the B-52. Jankowski was supposed to retire in 2000 but because of pilot shortages he accepted a one-year, then a three-year extension, during which time, in February 2003, he answered the call to active duty. Jankowski said, ‘This is what I’ve trained for. There’s always a possibility you’re going to be called upon to go at a moment’s notice. You just have to be ready to do your job. I was trained to fly and fight, and I was ready to go.’

Another of the B-52H pilots who took part in Operation Enduring Freedom was Lieutenant Colonel Steven W. Kirkpatrick, who at the time was an instructor pilot in the 23rd EBS, 457th Expeditionary Bomber Wing at RAF Fairford. On 1 April 2003 he and Lieutenant Maury Kent, co-pilot, and the rest of Crew 13 took off to carry out precision strikes against three separate target sets in northern Iraq in areas heavily defended by heavy-calibre AAA and SA-3, SA-2 and SA-3.2 SAMs. After they entered Iraqi airspace Crew 13 contacted a GFAC in the area of Alqosh, north-east of Mosul. After receiving the co-ordinates for a two-story Baath Party building and nearby fuel storage tanks Kirkpatrick immediately formed an attack plan while en route to the target area. Minutes later, the aircraft unleashed four JDAMs right on target. The GFAC confirmed success and was elated to report secondary explosions from the fuel tanks. On the next bomb run the B-52 crew destroyed the remaining fuel tanks and the last portion of the building with another four JDAMs.

Continuing the onslaught, the GFAC passed another set of co-ordinates for a third target in the area. While preparing to attack, command authorities directed the crew to withhold the remaining JDAM for potential time sensitive targets (TSTs). Without delay the offence team reset the bombing system for a conventional attack with M117s and began the bomb run against a group of tanks in revetment near a strategic road junction. At twenty seconds to bomb release AWACS directed the crew to withhold all remaining weapons and switch to the TST mission. AWACS then relayed new target co-ordinates north of Kirkuk. As Major Trey Morriss, instructor EWO and the navigation team of Major Rafael Rodriguez and Major Al Ringle (both instructor radar navigators) formulated a plan to minimize time spent near known enemy threat areas, the B-52 sped south at maximum speed. Crew 13 planned to attack from the north-east of Kirkuk with the remaining four JDAMs, then reset for a second pass from east to west with M117s against artillery sites and a chemical weapons facility all close to coalition ground forces. The B-52H crew co-ordinated with AWACS for available SEAD aircraft to suppress the enemy defences and just before commencing the attack, RAGU 24 rendezvoused with a navy EA-6B equipped with HARM missiles for SEAD support. With twenty seconds before bomb release by the B-52 the EA-6B called ‘Magnum’ over the radio to signify a HARM launch against SAM threats. At the same time the EWO picked up signals of an impending launch from the enemy missiles and initiated defensive measures to protect the aircraft. While approaching the target the EA-6B called that three SAM missiles were airborne, as well as giving two more ‘Magnum’ calls over the radio.

Colonel Kirkpatrick struck the target with four perfect releases of the remaining JDAMs. Seconds after the release one SAM passed through the aircraft altitude on a parallel course and 500 ft alongside. With AAA fire at co-altitude in front of the aircraft, he began defensive manoeuvres with a maximum bank turn to the north. As both aircraft exited the threat area, RAGU 24 reported to AWACS for follow-on instructions. With no further SEAD available, AWACS directed Crew 13 to return to the northern area for further action. Upon contact with a GFAC Kirkpatrick was tasked to strike the previously co-ordinated targets with the remaining M117s and this they did. His actions earned him the DFC.

On 10 April 2003 another pilot in the 23rd EBS earned the DFC. Immediately after take-off from RAF Fairford Major Rene N. Gonzalez, instructor pilot, and Major Pete Costas, aircraft commander, realized that the right-aft main gear had failed to retract. The other members of the crew were Major Joe Jones, instructor radar navigator, Major Chris Talbot, instructor radar navigator and Major John Dorsey, instructor EWO. After a detailed analysis of weapon-delivery limitations and fuel requirements, Gonzalez decided to continue with the mission. When he reached their assigned combat orbit area he coordinated with a GFAC near K-2 airfield north of Baghdad to strike five separate armoured emplacements along a ridgeline facing coalition approach routes to Kirkuk and K-2. Despite manoeuvering limitations caused by the malfunctioning gear and the unavailability of SEAD, the B-52 crew pressed the attack and was immediately engaged by SA-3 target-tracking radar (TTR) and AAA batteries defending Republican Guard fortifications and the airfield. The crew carried out evasive manoeuvres and continued to the assigned targets, which they successfully destroyed although one weapon had malfunctioned, leaving one target operational. Without hesitation Gonzalez positioned the aircraft for another attack and he successfully destroyed the remaining armoured emplacement. The GFAC reported all ‘good hits’ on assigned targets and tasked Gonzalez to target the SAMs and SAM site facilities that engaged them on their previous two attacks. The B-52 crew evaluated the threat and adjusted the axis of attack to minimize aircraft exposure in the missile engagement zone (MEZ). After ensuring that multiple SAMs could be attacked along a single axis the crew proceeded to attack targets that were arguably more appropriate for SEAD-type assets. Despite aggressive enemy action from the same SAM target sites, they were all destroyed. On 9 April Baghdad fell and on 16 April 2003 CENTCOM officials declared the end of major combat action in Iraq.

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