On April 18, the U.S. Air Force’s massive B-52 Stratofortresses launched their first strikes against the Islamic State. In the mission over Qayyarah, Iraq, the lumbering warplanes dropped GPS- or laser-guided bombs onto a nondescript set of buildings.
But despite being icons of American military power, the bombers might not be the best tools for the job. When Boeing delivered the last B-52s more than a half century ago, the flying branch expected the planes would obliterate sprawling Soviet military bases and cities with nuclear bombs — not carry out pinprick strikes on terrorists in the Middle East.
“I just feel this is [the] B-52 being shoehorned into current operations,” Brian Laslie, Air Force historian and author of The Air Force Way of War,wrote onTwitter on April 20. “I’m not saying B-52 is wrong platform. I’m just not convinced it is.”
To be sure, the Pentagon has played up the decision to send the eight-engine heavy bombers back to war. The deployment to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar marked the first time the aircraft — informally nicknamed the Big Ugly Fat Fucker, or BUFF — had flown out of a base in the Middle East in more than 25 years.
In continuous service since 1955 and repeatedly upgraded, a single B-52 can lug 35 tons of bombs and missiles. While the plane can fly nearly 9,000 miles with a full load of fuel, aerial tankers can keep the BUFF airborne as long as the crewcan hold out.
The bombers are “legendary,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, the Pentagon’s top spokesman for America’s war on Islamic State, told reporters on April 20. “Obviously, the B-52 does have a long and very illustrious history. So we do like to talk about it.”
The planes replaced B-1 bombers that had been flying over Iraq and Syria since August 2014. According to the Air Force, these “Bones” had flown only seven percent of the missions by manned aircraft since the bombing campaign started, but had lobbed nearly 40 percent of the weapons.
“The B-52s really are replacing the B-1s,” Warren explained. “[The B-52s] will conduct the same type of precision strikes that we’ve seen for the last 20 months here in this theater.”
But none of this really explains whether sending the BUFFs — or the “Bones” beforehand— was a practical move in a fight against small groups of militants, with few heavy weapons, who favor civilian style vehicles for transportation.