When it comes to strategic bombers, the B-2 Spirit and the B-52 Stratofortress couldn’t be any more different. Despite both being strategic bombers, each platform was created with specific mindsets in place in regards to their application. As the United States Air Force has continued to adapt to future threats from abroad they have also had to adapt their toolset to address different threats.
According to the Pentagon’s new assessment of threats from China and Russia, it seems that the B-2 bomber will see the end of its service life before the nearly 66-year-old B-52 which has seen action in nearly every Conflict the USAF has been involved in since the Cold War.
However, alongside the B-21 Raider, the B-52 will remain as the B-2 descends into the shadows of aviation history. The B-2 tends to suffer in several areas where the B-52 does not. Primarily the mission set that the B-2 was designed for no longer applies in today’s modern air combat theatre.
While it may seem odd to phase out the high-tech stealthy heavy strategic bomber before the massive eight-engined B-52 there is solid logic behind the decision. The B-2 costs a whopping $2 billion per aircraft with the USAF having had a total of 21 built. The remaining 20 aircraft will be gradually phased out as the next-generation B-21 Raider nuclear-capable stealth bomber comes online.
The B-2 was introduced during a time when a long-range, stealth nuclear-capable bomber was a pipe dream to most nations – most notably Russia during the Cold War. The idea behind the aircraft was to have a heavy strategic bomber capable of penetrating the USSR’s air defenses to deliver critical strikes on target should the need arise.
However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the B-2’s impressive capabilities were rarely needed. It first saw combat in 1999 during the Kosovo war and went on to fly a few combat sorties in Iraq and Afganistan and only 5 total combat sorties since 2011 with all of them being inside Libya. All of these recent strikes have been made against combatants who couldn’t hope to even test the plane’s advanced stealth capabilities.
Conversely, the B-52 is going on its 66th birthday and is still in widespread use. The USAF has even gone as far as to bring mothballed B-52s out of the boneyard and make combat-ready. Despite its age, the B-52 has been able to make itself useful due to it being able to handle much of the wide array of ordnance that the Air Force uses.
The B-2 however, will not have its responsibilities taken over by the B-52. The B-52 will continue to be used as a heavy strategic bomber as well as a standoff platform for launching long-range weapons in a moment’s notice from beyond enemy reach.
The B-2 will instead be replaced by the up and coming B-21 Raider which will fill the gap that Chinese strategic air defenses can now bring against the B-2 to expose its vulnerabilities. The B-21 Raider is scheduled to start integrating with the existing B-2, B-52 bomber fleets by 2025.