Aging bombers have lots of life left in them
by DAVID AXE
In one of most bizarre moments of the bizarre Aug. 6 debate between Republican presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee — the 59-year-old former Arkansas governor — blasted U.S. president Barack Obama for, Huckabee claimed, allowing America’s military might to decay. And Huckabee decided the U.S. Air Force’s B-52 bomber best represented this supposedly sad state of affairs.
“The disaster is that we’ve forgotten why we have a military,” Huckabee told the Fox News moderators. “The purpose of it is to make sure that we protect every American, wherever that American is, and if an American is calling out for help, whether it’s in Benghazi or at the border, then we ought to be able to answer it.”
“We’ve not done that because we’ve decimated our military,” the ex-governor continued. “We’re flying B-52s. The most recent one that was put in service was November of 1962. A lot of the B-52s we’re flying, we’ve only got 44 that are in service, combat ready, and the fact is, most of them are older than me. And that’s pretty scary.”
Actually, the Air Force owns 76 B-52Hs. It used to have 94, but in 2008 then-president George W. Bush — yes, a Republican — cut the fleet by 18. One of the 76 active airframes suffered an accident recently and Obama’s Air Force brought back one of the mothballed bombers to replace it.
Now, it’s true that the B-52s are old … in calendar years. Boeing delivered the first B-52H to the Air Force in 1961 and the last in 1963, not 1962 as Huckabee claimed. But Boeing conservatively estimates that the eight-engine heavy bombers can fly until the mid-2040s.
The life-limiting structural component is the warplanes’ upper wing skins, currently rated for around 36,000 flight hours. “As of 1999 the average airframe had 14,700 flight hours,” Globalsecurity.org reported in 2011. “Boeing believes with high confidence that the average number of flight hours left is 17,800, at a minimum. The ‘oldest’ B-52H is at about 21,000 hours and only experiences about 380 flight hours per year.”
So the B-52H is actually just mid-way through its fatigue life. And in many ways, a B-52H is “younger” in 2015 than it was just a few years ago. The Air Force is spending more than a billion dollars to give all 76 of the bombers new communications systems and to make them compatible with a wider array of modern weaponry.
New radars and engines are also in the cards for the venerable bombers. Far from symbols of military decay, the big, tough B-52s are enduring icons of America’s military might — and will likely remain so whether Huckabee, another Republican or likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is the next president.
- B-52s Are On Their Way to Blast ISIS
- I’ll Be Damned, These Boneyard B-52s Can Still Fly
- Transforming the B-52 Into a Maritime Patrol Plane