The Air Force Plans to Fly 100-Year-Old Planes
Behind the front-line warplanes is a fleet of aging jets, including one designed over a single weekend in a hotel room during the Cold War.
Since we have an administration with a proclivity to drop bombs, very big bombs, this seems like a good time to talk about bombs, and how they are dropped.
The United States Air Force has a lot of bombs, of many kinds. On the face of it, they are a modern force, conveying fearsome power. Look behind that impression, however, and there is an astonishing story of aging airplanes and a very expensive effort to keep them flying for as long as 100 years—in fact, the first ever warplanes to be in service for a whole century.
This only-in-America story really begins in a suite at the Van Cleve Hotel in Dayton, Ohio, on a weekend in October 1948. The Boeing company faced a crisis. For two years they had been trying unsuccessfully to meet a demand from the U.S. Air Force for a new strategic bomber.
It was a dangerous time in the Cold War.
The Soviet Union was a year away from detonating its first atomic bomb. In order to checkmate the Soviet threat America needed a deterrent to demonstrate that it could deliver its own nuclear bombs anywhere and at any time from a fleet of bombers.
Curiously, the Air Force was insisting that the new bomber should not be a jet but propeller-powered—even though the new Strategic Air Command was already flying a revolutionary Boeing jet, the B-47. To carry a new generation of nuclear weapons they wanted an airplane twice the size of the B-47, and no jet of such a size had yet been attempted. Then, suddenly, in meetings at an air base near Dayton, the Air Force told Boeing that the new bomber should be a jet.
Holed up in the Dayton hotel suite were two engineers who had transformed Boeing from a pre-war minor player to a wartime and post-war behemoth in military aviation: Ed Wells, the chief designer, and George Schairer, a visionary who in 1945 had discovered some of Nazi Germany’s most advanced aerodynamic research and put it to use in the B-47, which was twice as fast as any other bomber in the world.
Wells and Schairer called four other Boeing engineers to the suite. Schairer took one of these out to a hobby store to buy balsa wood, glue, and model paint. Back in the hotel, as Wells drew the outlines of a new bomber, he called out its dimensions and Schairer carved and assembled it from the balsa as a 120th scale model—the scale was chosen because Wells was using a 12-inch ruler and 1 inch of the model represented 10 feet of the actual airplane.
The model was boxed up and sent to the Pentagon together with a dossier drawn up by Wells and Schairer that predicted the bomber’s capabilities. In April 1952, that airplane made its first flight from a Boeing plant in Seattle. It was called the B-52 and its performance came within a whisker of the numbers calculated in the Van Cleve Hotel—in some respects better.
Astoundingly, the B-52 is still the backbone of the Air Force’s strategic bombing fleet. Even though there are far more advanced bombers, the B-1 and a small unit of B-2 stealth bombers, it is the B-52 that flies most frequently and acts as a kind of airborne artillery barrage, capable of carpet-bombing on a terrifying scale (though, apparently, not of dropping the Mother of All Bombs deployed this month in Afghanistan).
The Air Force plans to keep its B-52 fleet flying for another 30 years. And that is not all. To keep those bombers operational they also need to maintain another venerable jet, the KC-135 tanker that allows the bombers to stay aloft on long missions by refueling them in flight.
General Carlton Everhart, commander of Air Mobility Command that operates the KC-135 fleet, told an air warfare conference in March that the tankers could be 100 years old before they are retired. No other military airplane anywhere in the world is going to be anything like that old and still flying.
Guess who designed the K-135? The B-52 guys.
Six days after the B-52’s first flight, Wells and Schairer presented Boeing’s board with a breathtaking idea: a passenger jet that would fly twice as fast as any existing propeller-driven airliner. But first they would get the government to pay for the development of the jet by producing it as a new generation of tanker to service the B-52s.
At its own expense, Boeing produced a single prototype (it cost $16 million but by writing off the cost against taxes the actual cost was only $5 million). The Air Force bought the proposal and the KC-135 emerged from the prototype, which then later morphed into the legendary 707 airliner.
It was a very smart two-for-one deal based on a relatively small investment, maybe the smartest deal the company ever made. As a result, the 707 established Boeing’s supremacy in passenger jets and the KC-135 became a perennial milk cow. The last KC-135 was delivered to the Air Force in 1965.
The Air Force only began seriously looking for a replacement in 2001. What followed for more than a decade demonstrated everything that is wrong about the military procurement process: conflicting pressures from politicians with vested local interests in production plants; international free traders versus protectionists; ever-shifting Air Force requirements; and over-optimistic estimates of the cost.
In 2008 the Air Force awarded the contract to the European Airbus consortium for a military version of its A-330 passenger jet. According to an Air Force source, Airbus beat a rival bid from Boeing “by a mile.” Boeing cried foul. The Government Accounting Office intervened and found corruption in the Pentagon, concluding that procurement officers had misled Boeing on the criteria that their airplane had to meet.
When the contest was resumed in 2011 Boeing won, with a version of its venerable 767 jetliner. At that point the Air Force ordered 179 new tankers at a total price of $35 billion. That has now risen to $52 billion, and Boeing is so behind in delivering the first batch of 18 airplanes that it has incurred $1.75 billion in overrun costs. (The Airbus tanker has been operational for several years and has been adopted by the Air Forces of 10 nations, including the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, France, and Spain.)
In fact, Boeing’s poor performance on this contract is widely believed to have cost them the contract for the Air Force’s next major investment, the B-21 long-range strike bomber. Northrup Grumman beat out Boeing on a deal that could eventually be worth $80 billion.
The Cold War ideas of strategic bombing that gave birth to the B-52 are obsolete (Strategic Air Command has become Global Strike Command). Technically the B-52 remains part of the nuclear triad (along with the B-2), able to carry and drop nuclear weapons, but it is impossible to see how or where they could still be used in that role. The B-52 can be used only against adversaries that don’t have sophisticated air defense systems, like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, and nuking them is unthinkable. (That is, to any sane person.)
For sure, the B-52’s weapons bay has been upgraded so that it can deploy laser-guided conventional smart bombs, but the bomber’s most effective use is probably psychological: that it can still serve as it did during the Vietnam War as that bluntest of blunt instruments—the carpet bomber—or, in the vernacular of Trump, to bomb the crap out of adversaries. The opportunity for that is very limited if you have to worry about collateral damage, i.e., killing lots of innocent bystanders.
However, age does bring one benefit. Despite other upgrades the B-52’s underlying structure remains as it was designed in the 1950s. As a result it is far simpler to maintain than the B-1 and B-2. Seventy-two percent of the 76-strong force is mission ready at all times. In contrast the B-2 stealth bomber is so complex to maintain and so tricky to operate that its mission readiness is the lowest in the Air Force, only 46 percent of the 20-strong force. (It is the only bomber equipped to deliver the Massive Ordinance Penetrator, otherwise known as the “bunker buster” that would be required to strike underground nuclear facilities, such as in North Korea or Iran.)
Now, to give the B-52s yet another lease on life the Air Force is on the verge of spending up to $4 billion on re-equipping them with new engines. The existing engines are “dirty burners” with appalling emissions impact, expensive to service, and so old that at least one has actually fallen off the airplane.
But the idea that these bombers will still have any purpose by 2050 seems bizarre. The only other powers committed to future bomber fleets are Russia and China. Northrop Grumman’s B-21 is intended to surpass anything those nations can produce, but warfare technology moves ahead far more nimbly than traditional Pentagon procurement programs. It’s not even certain that the B-21 will need a crew on board. It could be operated remotely from Kansas like a drone. And it’s more than likely that a whole array of unmanned aircraft, small and relatively cheap to produce, will end the age of the big bomber for good.