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Introduced into service back in the 1950s, the B-52 Stratofortress and its upgraded B-52H variant have served as the backbone of the US Air Force’s strategic bomber fleet, and have been used in virtually all of the major wars fought by the US since Vietnam.
The US’s fleet of B-52H bomber no longer carries traditional gravity-powered nuclear bombs, with their strategic nuclear capacity now limited to the AGM-86B nuclear-tipped cruise missile, The Drive’s The War Zone has reported, citing a recently updated Air Force manual.
The latest version of the Air Force document, entitled ‘Safety Rules for US Strategic Bomber Aircraft’, was released in September 2019, and indicates that the B61-7 and B83-1 nuclear gravity bombs were removed from “B-52H approved weapons configuration.” The bombs remain the only authorized nuclear weapons deployable by the B-2A bomber, however.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, first reported on the probable exclusion of the B-52H’s nuclear gravity bomb capability in 2017, and tweeted a screenshot of the publicly available Air Force document on Monday.
The War Zone explained that the dropped capacity was not necessarily surprising, since only countries without any sort of air defences would be vulnerable to the bomber and its traditional gravity-dependent nukes. Concerns about the bomber’s capacity to carry out its strategic mission go back all the way to its original deployment in the 1950s, and helped lead to the development of long-range stand-off weapons and cruise missiles meant to fire their payload from outside enemy airspace. The US lost 31 B-52s in Vietnam during the intense conventional bombing of that country between 1965 and 1973.
The United States Air Force has 76 B-52Hs remaining in its inventory, and they are expected to continue their operations until at least 2050 after receiving upgrades to their bomb bay, radar array and engines.
Photo : An exhibtiion of photos taken during the Vietnam War
Soviet experts inspect the fragments of a B-52 bomber shot down over Hanoi in December 1972
The B-52H is also a candidate for new hypersonic missile systems presently being developed by US arms manufacturers. In 2017, Air Force General John Hyten observed that without the Long-Range Standoff Weapon capability, “you don’t have the B-52 as a viable platform.”
Despite their age, the bombers continue to be deployed to various hotspots, with a squadron of the bombers sent to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean last week amid tensions between the US and Iran over the US assassination of a senior Iranian military commander in Baghdad on January 3.