Until the second half of the 1960s, strategic bombers constituted the core of US nuclear power.
However, the massive deployment in the USSR of medium and long-range anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as the rearmament of fighter aviation on supersonic interceptors made the breakthrough of American bombers to targets located deep in Soviet territory an extremely difficult task.
In this regard, the top military-political leadership of the United States was forced to revise the concept of nuclear planning.
The rapid progress of Soviet air defense systems and the large-scale production of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the Soviet Union led to the bet being placed on submarine nuclear strategic missile carriers and silo-based ballistic missiles.
Although the role and capabilities of strategic bombers as a first strike weapon have declined sharply, they are still part of the American nuclear triad.
The structure of the long-range bomber aviation of the United States Air Force
Almost all flying American long-range bombers B-52H Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer and B-2A Spirit are operated as part of the 8th Air Force, which is subordinate to the US Air Force Global Strikes Command and the US Strategic Command.
The 8th Air Force headquarters is stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-52H bombers at Barksdale AFB
The association includes five active and two reserve bomber aviation wings. The reserve air wings provide training for the flight and technical personnel of the Air National Guard.
- Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana: 2nd Bomber Wing (B-52H) and 307th Reserve Bomber Wing.
Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota: 5th Bomber Wing (B-52H).
- Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri: 509th Bomber Wing (B-2A) and 131st Reserve Bomber Wing.
– Daeiss AFB, Texas: 7th Bombardment Wing (B-1B).
- Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota: 28th Bomber Wing (B-1B).
Long-range bomber Boeing B-52H Stratofortress
For nearly 60 years, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress has been the workhorse of American long-range bomber aviation.
The production of aircraft of the V-52N modification that remained in service ended in October 1962. But, despite their venerable age and participation in a number of conflicts, they are planned to be used at least until the end of the 2030s.
This became possible thanks to a large margin of safety and a number of successively implemented repair, restoration and modernization programs.
Long-range bomber Boeing B-52H Stratofortress
Currently, the "stratospheric fortress" is the largest and heaviest active US Air Force combat aircraft.
The wingspan of the V-52N is 56,39 m, the length of the aircraft is 49,5 m. The empty bomber weighs about 83 tons, the maximum take-off weight is 221 tons. Fuel tanks can take more than 181 liters of aviation kerosene. The maximum combat load reaches 000 tons. The crew is 27,2 people.
At high altitudes, the B-52N is capable of flying at a speed of 1 km / h. Cruising speed - 050 km / h. Service ceiling - 845 km. Combat radius without refueling - 15 km, ferry flight range - over 7 km.
The in-flight refueling system makes it possible to significantly increase the flight range and the time spent on combat duty.
The United States Air Force, the Air National Guard, and reserves have nearly four hundred KC-135R / T Stratotanker, KC-10A Extender, and KC-46A Pegasus air tankers.
If necessary, some of these tanker aircraft can be used in the interests of long-range aviation.
Satellite image of Google Earth: KS-135 tanker aircraft at Tinker airbase
During the Cold War, American bombers patrolled along the USSR's nuclear weapons on board, which, in the event of receiving an order to strike, made it possible to repeatedly reduce the flight time.
However, after a series of accidents and catastrophes that led to the loss of thermonuclear bombs, combat duty in the air was stopped.
Despite the very advanced age, the "stratospheric fortresses", operated by combat units, are quite capable of coping with the tasks set.
The Air Force command pays great attention to maintaining these long-range bombers in working condition and improving the on-board radio-electronic equipment. The need for spare parts is covered by the "cannibalism" of aircraft stored in Davis-Monthan.
On all aircraft intended for combat missions, aft 1990-mm defensive artillery installations were removed in the second half of the 20s.
Instead of cannons, the bombers were equipped with very powerful and advanced systems for staging electronic and optical jamming, which to some extent should compensate for the high radar signature, the relatively low speed and maneuverability of the aircraft, designed in the mid-1950s.
B-52N bombers are capable of carrying a wide variety of aviation weapons, including free-fall and corrected bombs, cruise missiles with conventional warheads, and naval mines.
But since we are considering the B-52N as an element of the American nuclear triad, we will dwell on nuclear weapons in more detail.
The greatest danger is posed by bombers armed with AGM-86В ALCM cruise missiles with a W80-1 thermonuclear warhead with a yield of 5 to 150 kt.
From 1982 to 1986, the Boeing Corporation produced over 1 AGM-700B missiles.
Cruise missile AGM-86 in flight
The mass of the equipped rocket is 1 kg. The range, depending on the altitude and flight profile, is 450-2 km. The cruising flight speed is about 200 km / h. The AGM-2В missiles are equipped with TERCOM equipment, coupled with receivers of the GPS satellite navigation system.
Suspension KR AGM-86В
Although, according to the treaty on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive weapons, the long-range bomber B-52H is considered a carrier of one nuclear charge, it can take up to 20 AGM-86B missiles in overload. However, to maintain an acceptable flight range, even with air refueling, more than 12 missiles are not suspended.
Pylon with CR AGM-86B
Most of the KR AGM-86B has been in operation for almost 40 years. However, air-launched cruise missiles with thermonuclear warheads are still a serious threat and should not be discounted.
A very decent range allows you to launch missiles without entering the air defense zone, and the ability to fly at extremely low altitude makes it difficult to detect ground-based radars.
In 2012, the US Department of Defense announced the extension of the service life of the KR AGM-86B until 2030. To do this, 550 existing air-launched cruise missiles have gone through a life extension program.
The new cruise missile is expected to enter service in 2027.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-52H bombers at Minot airbase
All capable B-52H bombers (about 20 aircraft), adapted for the AGM-86B KR, are deployed at the Minot airbase in North Dakota.
An underground storage facility for warheads and missiles is located 300 meters north of the air stations, and buildings for pre-flight missile preparation have also been erected on this territory.
Satellite image of Google Earth: nuclear weapons storage at Minot airbase
The rest of the B-52Ns, which are not formally carriers of air-launched cruise missiles, are permanently assigned to Barksdale airbase, in Louisiana.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-52H bombers at Barksdale airbase
These bombers are capable of carrying thermonuclear bombs with a yield of 10 to 340 kt: B61-7 and B61-11. Theoretically, the arsenal of the American B-52H strategic bombers may also have B83-1 thermonuclear bombs, but the US Air Force command announced that they are no longer used on aircraft of this type.
Satellite image of Google Earth: nuclear weapons storage at Barksdale AFB
In the future, on the B-52N strategic bombers, the B61-7 free-fall bombs are planned to be replaced by the adjustable B61-12 bombs with an adjustable explosion power: 0,3, 1,5, 10 and 50 kt.
However, the B61-11 bombs, designed to deal with well-protected underground objects, will remain in service.
Of course, a large subsonic bomber with a large RCS currently has no chance of breaking through the developed air defense system of Russia or China.
However, during a nuclear war, when the control of the air defense forces will be disrupted, and many radar posts will fail, the B-52H bombers can be effectively used in the second wave to destroy the surviving critical targets. Such as silo launchers that did not launch ICBMs, SSBN bases, airfields, command centers, large bases for storing weapons and military equipment.
Subtle long-range bomber B-2A Spirit
By the mid-1970s, the main territory of the USSR at medium and high altitudes was controlled by a radar field, and most of the administrative and industrial centers and all strategically important objects were covered by fighter-interceptors and anti-aircraft missile systems.
Under these conditions, the US Air Force command initiated a program to create a long-range bomber, which is inconspicuous for radars and in the thermal spectrum, built according to the "flying wing" scheme, with no vertical tail.
In July 1989, the two-seat long-range bomber B-2A Spirit, created by Northrop Grumman, made its first flight.
B-2A bomber over Edwards Air Force Base
It was originally planned to build 132 bombers.
But due to the end of the Cold War and the excessively high cost (more than $ 2 billion per unit), the American Congress blocked the program, and, taking into account the lead aircraft, it was possible to release 21 aircraft.
The maximum take-off weight of the bomber is 170 kg. Length - 600 m. Wingspan - 21 m. Maximum speed at an altitude of 52,4 - 12 km / h. Cruising speed - 000 km / h. Combat radius without refueling - up to 1 km. At the first stage, a combat load weighing 010 kg could be placed in two internal bomb compartments, after modernization it was increased to 900 kg.
B-2A bombers are capable of carrying a wide range of aircraft weapons designed to destroy ground and surface targets.
In addition to free-fall bombs used for area strikes, AGM-154 JSOW and JDAM corrected bombs, as well as AGM-158 JASSM cruise missiles, can be used against well-protected point targets.
Satellite image of Google Earth: storage of nuclear bombs at Whiteman AFB
In strategic missions, the B-2A can be loaded with 16 B61-11 bombs or the same number of B83-1 bombs.
It is noteworthy that stealth bombers are carriers of free-fall thermonuclear bombs, mainly designed to combat targets buried and reinforced with reinforced concrete. The B-2A is currently the only carrier of the B83-1 thermonuclear bombs with a capacity of 1,2 Mt in the US Air Force.
Nineteen B-2A bombers are assigned to Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, and are part of the 509th Bomber Wing, 8th Air Force, Global Strike Command.
This wing is the only permanent unit in the United States to carry B-2A aircraft.
One B-2A crashed in February 2008.
Another stealth bomber is assigned to the 412th Test Wing at Edwards AFB and is used in various test programs.
According to the latest data, 16 B-2A aircraft are currently in combat readiness.
Although the number of stealth bombers is small, they still pose a real danger.
Open sources give various values of the RCS of the V-2A (0,02–0,1 m²), however, the real characteristics of the aircraft's signature are one of the most well-guarded secrets, and during training flights, "invisibles" usually fly with transponders and lenses turned on. Luneberg.
It should also be understood that for radars operating in different frequency bands and using different signal processing methods, the range will also be different.
V-2A radars have the greatest potential for early detection of V-18A. Now in our air defense troops the most common are new stations of the "Sky" family and the modernized P-5 radar. Also, the 84NXNUMXA radar is still on duty.
A big disadvantage of the listed standby stations is the significant geometric dimensions of the rotating antennas, which increases their visual visibility and greatly complicates relocation. In addition, the P-18 and 5N84A are two-coordinate radars, and a radio altimeter must work in tandem with them to accurately determine the coordinates of the target.
Some sources claim that the detection range of B-2A, flying at an average altitude, drops by about 25-30% at V-XNUMXA stations as well. With a low-altitude flight profile, the detection range deteriorates significantly.
Best of all, the "invisibility" of the B-2A works against the radars of the centimeter and decimeter frequency bands most common in the air defense forces.
The B-2A bomber has the dubious reputation of the most expensive combat aircraft for a reason.
In addition to the "stealth" coating and a special shape of the airframe, its capabilities in terms of breaking through the enemy's air defense are provided by advanced avionics and the ability to fly at low altitude in the dark.
The avionics include an AN / APQ-181 multi-mode radar capable of viewing the earth's surface in a sector up to 240 km. The aircraft is equipped with numerous passive sensors to detect various threats, as well as jamming systems.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-2A bomber at Whiteman airbase
Due to the fact that in relation to the B-2A there is a special secrecy regime, and the "stealth coating" is sensitive to prolonged exposure to the sun, stealthy bombers spend most of their time in hangars at Whiteman airbase.
To maintain the required skill level of flight personnel, B-2A aircraft regularly perform training flights at night and during the day, both over the territory of the United States and abroad.
In 2016, one B-2A was photographed by satellite in mid-air over Missouri.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-2A bomber in flight
Occasionally, satellite imagery captures moments that the US Air Force is trying to avoid.
So, in the database of the public resource Google Earth there is a photograph of a B-2A bomber that rolled out of the runway in mid-September 2021. According to information published by the Fox News channel, the plane made an emergency landing, was damaged, but suitable for recovery.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-2A bomber that made an emergency landing at Whiteman airbase
The picture shows that there are emergency vehicles next to the plane, and the air intakes and nozzles of the engines are filled with fire-fighting foam.
Supersonic long-range bomber B-1B Lancer
In the summer of 1985, the US Air Force began mastering the B-1B Lancer bomber.
This aircraft with a variable sweep wing was considered as a temporary replacement for the B-2A bomber, the creation of which was greatly delayed.
Until mid-1988, 100 bombers were delivered to the customer.
The B-1B bomber proved to be problematic in operation. In total, 10 aircraft were lost in flight accidents.
The supersonic B-1B was designed on the basis of the B-1A bomber, which was abandoned in 1977.
Compared to the first modification that was not adopted for service, the maximum flight speed of the B-1B at high altitude decreased from 2 km/h to 300 km/h. On the contrary, when performing low-altitude throws, the speed increased from 1 to 335 km/h.
The decrease in speed characteristics during high-altitude flight is associated with the restrictions imposed by structural elements designed to reduce the radar signature of the aircraft. An increase in maximum speed at low altitude was supposed to help with a breakthrough of air defense.
The maximum take-off weight of the B-1B in comparison with the B-1A increased by 35,5 tons, and reaches 216 365 kg. At the same time, the thrust-to-weight ratio fell from 0,174 to 0,122. The maximum wingspan of the B-1B is 41,67 m. The length is 44,81 m. The crew is 4 people.
The maximum combat load of the B-1B bomber, which can fit in bomb compartments, is 34 kg, another 000 kg of bombs and cruise missiles can be suspended from external nodes.
Combat radius without refueling - 5 km.
At their peak in the mid-1990s, B-1B bombers assigned to the Combat Aviation Command were stationed at 4 air bases located in the United States.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-1B bombers at Ellsworth airbase
Now, if you do not take into account several bombers available at the flight test centers at Nellis and Edwards AFBs, all B-1Bs are assigned to Ellsworth and Daiss AFBs.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-1B bombers at Deiss airbase
As part of the USAF reorganization announced in April 2015, the B-1Bs of the combatant air wings were moved from Air Combat Command (tactical) to Global Strikes Command (strategic). At the same time, the Americans declare the "non-nuclear" status of the B-1B long-range bombers.
As part of the treaty on the reduction of strategic offensive arms by 2011, all B-1Bs were deprived of the ability to carry cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.
However, there are no particular technical obstacles in order to adapt the bombers in service to deliver B61 thermonuclear bombs.
In February 2021, the United States Air Force announced the decommissioning of 17 B-1Bs, leaving 45 aircraft in service. The four aircraft will be stored in a condition that allows them to be quickly returned to service if necessary.
The US military plans to completely abandon the use of these bombers by 2036.
American long-range bomber bases outside the continental United States
During the Cold War, American long-range bombers often used overseas bases for refueling, servicing and resting crews. This made it possible not to drive planes across the ocean every time and to reduce the flight time to the target.
After the collapse of the USSR and the decrease in the degree of international tension, American bombers were rare guests in Europe. However, in the past few years, their visits have resumed, which is undoubtedly a destabilizing factor.
Satellite image of Google Earth: aircraft KS-135T, KC-46A and B-52H at the British airbase Leuhars
Most often, long-range bombers B-52H, B-1B and B-2A land on British soil.
They have been spotted at Leuhars (East Coast of Scotland), Fairford (Gloucestershire) and Mildenhall (Suffolk).
Satellite image of Google Earth: KS-135R tanker aircraft at Mildenhall airbase
At Mildenhall airbase, KS-135R tankers of the 100th air wing are permanently deployed, which are supposed to support the operations of American long-range bombers in Europe.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-1B and KS-135R at Fairford airbase
At the British forward deployment airbase Fairford for the B-52H, B-1B and B-2A, there is all the necessary infrastructure. In particular, for the "invisible" B-2A, special hangars with a controlled microclimate have recently been built here, necessary to maintain the integrity of their radar-absorbing coating.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-2A at Fairford airbase
In addition to British airbases, US Air Force bombers have recently landed at airbases in Keflavik (Iceland), Lajes (about 1,6 thousand km west of Lisbon, Azores, Portugal), Erland (50 km north-west of Trondheim , Norway).
In the Middle East, the main deployment site for long-range bombers is the American airbase El Udeid in Qatar.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-1B bombers and KS-135R tankers at El Udeid airbase in Qatar
Pacific Rim Global Strike Command controls from Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-1B bombers at Andersen airbase
This is a very large air base, with two concrete runways, 3 m and 413 m long, where air tankers are permanently stationed and B-3H, B-208B and B-52A bombers are regularly deployed as part of a "force projection" strategy.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-2A bomber at Andersen airbase
An aviation ammunition storage facility is located about 1,5 km southwest of the runway. According to official data, nuclear weapons are not stored here, but at the same time there are all the conditions for this.
Satellite image of Google Earth: storage of aviation ammunition at Andersen airbase
In the interests of American bomber aviation in the Far East, if necessary, numerous tanker aircraft stationed in Singapore, Okinawa and Alaska can be used. This provides strategic bombers with an almost unlimited flight range.
The state and prospects for the development of US long-range bomber aviation
According to the reference data, as of 2021, there were 57 B-52Ns, 19 “invisible” B-2A and 45 B-1B supersonic bombers with variable wing geometry in service.
For comparison: according to open sources, Russia has 55 strategic turboprop missile carriers T-95MS6 / 16 / MSM and 13 supersonic Tu-160 / M.
Judging by the information published in foreign media, the US Air Force is experiencing certain difficulties with the operation of long-range aircraft. No more than 70% of the entire fleet of heavy bombers is in combat readiness.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-52H and B-1B bombers at the Life Cycle Extension Center at Tinker Air Base
Part of the B-1B and B-52H aircraft are being repaired and upgraded at the Life Cycle Extension Center at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, and one B-2A is being restored after an accident at Whiteman Air Force Base.
Satellite image of Google Earth: long-range bombers in the parking lot of the Edwards Flight Research Center
Several heavy bombers are involved in various research and testing programs and are not counted as carriers of nuclear weapons. In particular, one "stratospheric fortress" is used for air launch of hypersonic missiles.
Apparently, in the next decade, the number of American long-range bombers will match the current level.
At the same time, it can be stated that the US Air Force is not able to significantly increase its fleet by putting into operation aircraft in reserve.
The decommissioned supersonic B-1Vs will be used as a source of spare parts, and in the best case scenario, only a few machines can be returned to service, and there are no more B-52Ns suitable for restoration in storage.
Satellite image of Google Earth: B-52H and B-1B bombers in Davis Montan
Satellite images show that the B-52H and B-1B long-range bombers in the Davis-Montan aircraft storage center are mostly in the process of being dismantled.
After 2036, all American heavy bombers in service are to be replaced by the stealth B-21 Raider subsonic bomber currently being built by Northrop Grumman. In total, it is planned to build at least 149 aircraft.
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