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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

B-52 History 1960s

The Quail system was retrofitted in 1960 on the B-52E through G and was subsequently added to the B-52H. This missile was the first of a number of unique capabilities added to various models of the B-52. It was unique because the B-52 could carry four of these 13-foot-long 1,200-pound missiles in its 27-foot-long bomb bay in addition to the regular nuclear payload. The decoy system proved to be a workable option for penetration enhancement of the large radar cross section bomber because it served to dilute and ultimately saturate the Soviet defense system. Defense improvements and system maintenance problems forced retirement of the ADM-20 in the mid- 1970's.

In a program similar to Quail, North American Aviation developed a miniature vehicle powered by a turbojet engine. Named the Hound Dog, the AGM-28 missile could fly at altitudes from 500 to 60,000 feet at speeds above Mach 2. Programmed by the crew during captive carry, it was used to penetrate high threat terminal defenses, allowing the bomber to avoid overflight. The missile could perform feint attacks or preset maneuvers while flying its nuclear warhead out to a 600-mile range. The B-52C and all subsequent models were modified to carry two AGM-28 missiles, one under each wing on large hard points. The modification to carry AGM-28's had two major impacts on B-52 operations. First, like the low level capability being developed, the addition of Hound Dog altered the B-52's nuclear strike profile. The second major impact was the degradation of the B-52's range. Two Hound Dog missiles and the associated launch gear, totaling over 40,000 pounds, were forcing the B-52 to carry less than full fuel loads in order to remain within design weight limits. When carrying the AGM-28, the normal procedure was to run the missile's engines in flight to augment the bomber's thrust. To accomplish this and still get maximum range after launch, the missile was refueled by the bomber during captive carriage. In addition, these 45-foot-long missiles created a drag penalty that increased fuel consumption. This reduced the bomber's range on the order of 8 to 17 percent and increased tanker dependency.

The use of extended low altitude operations to insure the B-52's penetration capability further degraded the design strike range. The overall inefficiency of jet engine operations at low level, coupled with slower operating speeds, greatly reduced range at low altitude. For example, if the B-52H flew at high altitude on a nuclear strike mission, it had a maximum unrefueled range of approximately 9,000 nm. On a similar strike mission with 2,400 nm flown at 500 feet, the operations planners could count on only a 6,300-nm range with the addition of one refueling.

Despite the reduction in range resulting from the added weight, drag of new weapons, and the penalties of low altitude flight, strategic planners were beginning to appreciate the inherent flexibility of the large bomber. The changing penetration profiles and development of air-to-surface missiles, which allowed the bomber to avoid the heavily defended areas, was a recognition of improving Soviet defensive capabilities and marked a change in US tactics for strategic warfare. Flexibility became the watchword and adaptability the key to continued bomber operations.

In addition to tactical weapons developments for the B-52, the United States and Great Britain were pursuing a common initiative that would arm the heavy bombers of both nations with a new air-to-surface ballistic missile, Skybolt. Although a few B-52's were actually modified to carry this system, Skybolt never became operational. Bill Gunston, in his book Bombers of the West, describes this missile program as "marked by all the headwinds and diversions of an enterprise that is dominated by politics rather than mere technical problems." Secretary of Defense McNamara, in discussing ways of extending the life of the B-52 in an era of increasingly sophisticated enemy air defenses, dismissed the Skybolt program as having the disadvantages of both the bomber and the ICBM.

Although the Kennedy administration cancelled the Skybolt program, it accelerated the forces of change by announcing a new national security strategy called Flexible Response. This strategy was initially based upon withholding an "Assured Destruction" capability with a goal of damage limitation in a nuclear exchange. The strategy shift from massive nuclear retaliation to flexible response resulted in new emphasis being placed upon the full spectrum of operations, thus necessitating larger conventional force capabilities. Under this new approach, conventional forces were to be sufficiently large to prevent escalation of any hostility to the nuclear threshold.

Secretary of Defense McNamara did not favor the strategic bomber as a major deterrent system; yet, he did recognize its utility and potential flexibility. In testimony to Congress, he described the strategic retaliatory forces as needing sufficient flexibility to permit a choice of strategies suitable to

(1) strike back decisively across the entire spectrum of the Soviet target system simultaneously;

(2) strike Soviet military installations associated with their long-range nuclear forces in an effort to reduce the power of any follow-on attack; and

(3) if necessary, strike back at Soviet urban and industrial complexes in a controlled and deliberate manner.

He continued by saying the bomber's utility lay not in numbers or promptness but in its ability to be employed selectively against hard counterforce targets that are not time sensitive.

In 1961, as a demonstration of new flexible response options and in recognition of a demonstrated Soviet ICBM threat, the United States commenced a strategic option unique to the heavy bomber - airborne alert. The physical size, endurance, payload, and range of the B-52 made the 27- to 30-hour missions feasible. Through in-flight refueling, an adequate number of bombers could be kept continuously airborne to meet national objectives. This alert posture often included medium range bombers, but their limited range and endurance further taxed the available aerial refueling capability. As General Powers, then the Commander of SAC, explained to Congress: "This demonstration of resolve with airborne alert must impress Mr. Khruschev [so] that he cannot strike this country with impunity."

The general acquisition strategy of the early 1960's supported a buildup of the ICBM and SLBM legs of the TRIAD with only limited modification to the bomber force. As a result of the great operating cost differential between the newer missile systems and the older aircraft, the prompt "Assured Destruction" capability of the ICBM was less expensive than its bomber counterpart. Believing that the true value of the strategic bomber lies in a limited counterforce potential, the Secretary of Defense suggested that the existing B-52's, originally designed for a 10-year life, could satisfactorily provide this capability. The only unknown was how long a limited force of bombers could penetrate the expanding Soviet air defense umbrella.29 As a hedge against this uncertainty, Secretary McNamara authorized studies for a possible B-52 replacement. No major capability updates were initiated for the B-52, and only those improvements needed to continue the force were supported.

With the change in strategy and the lessening of interest in the strategic bomber, production of the B-52 ended in the summer of 1962 after a run of nearly 7 1/2 years. The last of the B-52's, an H model, was delivered to the 4135th Strategic Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota, in October 1962. Although physically resembling the other B-52's, this last MDS marked the first time in the history of strategic bombing that an aircraft had been designed explicitly for a low altitude penetration mission. It required about 120 structural modifications to withstand the aerodynamic forces encountered at low level. Once production terminated, however, subsequent improvements became a function of the versatility and adaptability of the original design.

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