The U.S. Air Force is stripping the ability to drop nuclear bombs out of 30 B-52H bombers. But the massive planes will still be able to fly deadly conventional missions.
On Sept. 17, the Air Force’s Global Strike Command announced it had finished converting the first bomber to dropping conventional bombs only. Recently changed to a so-called “major command” led by four-star Gen. Robin Rand, the headquarters controls all the flying branch’s bombers and ballistic missiles.
An official Air Force news article added more details about the project, but did not offer specifics about the changes to the aircraft:
Air Force Global Strike Command has begun the conversion of a portion of the B-52H bomber fleet from a nuclear to a conventional only capability aircraft under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
The conversion of the first of 30 operational aircraft from across the command was completed at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, this summer with the Air Force Reserve Command 307th Bomb Wing’s aircraft 61–1021. The conversion process preserves the full conventional capabilities of the B-52.
“We were honored to accept the challenge of modifying the first of 30 B-52Hs, in compliance with this historic treaty,” said Col. Bruce Cox, the 307th Bomb Wing commander. “Leveraging the unrivaled experience of the 307th Bomb Wing citizen Airmen maintainers, we quickly bridged the gap between engineering design and operational execution. I am very proud of the professionals of the 307th Bomb Wing Team.”
The Air Force will also convert 12 non-operational B-52H aircraft currently maintained in storage at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Tucson, Arizona. The Air Force is scheduled to complete all conversions by early 2017.
In 2010, Washington signed the New START arms reduction deal with Moscow. Two years ago, the Air Force effectively destroyed almost 100 G-models in the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to help the Pentagon meet its obligations. These planes are still in Arizona as a source of spare parts.
The dozen non-operational bombers are in what the flying branch refers to as “Type-1000 storage.” This means the aircraft can return to regular duties with relatively little effort. In January, the Air Force began putting one of these old warriors — nicknamed Ghost Rider before its initial retirement — back into action.
But despite these new limitations and general age of the planes, the Pentagon’s B-52 fleet is still making its presence felt. Five days after announcing the first modified aircraft, one of the lumbering bombers made a marathon flight to fight in a mock battle in Slovenia.
Another Air Force news item offered more specifics on the long-distance training mission:
The 2nd Bomb Wing’s B-52 Stratofortress aircrew out of Barksdale, Louisiana, conducted a long-range bomber mission to the U.S. European Command area of operations September 17–18, where they participated in Exercise Immediate Response 2015.
During the non-stop sortie, which lasted approximately 30 hours, the aircrew flew from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, to Postojna, Slovenia, where they worked with Slovenian and U.S. Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) at a range near the Slovenian town of Pivka to provide close air support to allied forces. Additionally, they conducted a low altitude demonstration for distinguished multinational visitors and leaders.
“This exercise sends a very specific message to our partners and allies in the region that the B-52 is prepared to provide immediate combat power anywhere in the world when called upon,” said Capt. Ryan Loucks, 96th Bomb Squadron assistant director of operations, who was part of the support team that planned and launched the sortie. “Exercise Immediate Response affords our combat aircrew an outstanding opportunity to train with our coalition partners and foster multinational integration within the region. It also allows us to exercise our capability to transit multiple AORs on a single mission and achieve very precise objectives on the ground in a very realistic scenario.”
Since the Vietnam War, the Air Force has actively used the fearsome planes for conventional strikes and even to back up troops on the ground — a mission known within the Pentagon as close air support, or CAS. Relying heavily on aerial refueling, Washington regularly sends the iconic eight-engine planes around the world to flex military muscle, reassure allies and warn off potential opponents.
Five months ago, two B-52s from Barksdale flew non-stop to Jordan, dropped strings of bombs on a training range and then flew home. The next month, more bombers arrived in England to take part in another practice session.
Back in April, a pair of the planes showed up for training flights near the Arctic Circle. In 2013, the Pentagon had sent the bombers to challenge new Chinese airspace restrictions in the South China Sea.
The B-52 is also one of the only two bombers capable of carrying America’s largest bomb, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator. These 15-ton weapons can smash through hundreds of feet of earth and concrete to get at targets buried below.
In short, the aircraft still get a lot of work … even without their nukes.