The U.S. Air Force’s B-52H Stratofortress bomber has recently posed for photos behind an impressive display of its still-expanding weapons and stores options. Although it first took to the air almost 70 years ago, the adaptable “BUFF” still keeps pace with developments in precision-guided ordnance and it also carries some important weapons that are unique to it in the Air Force inventory.
The photos, two of which were released through the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) earlier today, show, in an unmistakable head-on pose, a B-52H of the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. In the background of one of the shots is another B-52, this one from Barksdale’s 307th Bomb Wing, part of Air Force Reserve Command.
What’s immediately striking, and in contrast to Russia’s trio of strategic bombers, is the diverse combination of strategic nuclear and tactical conventional weapons available for the B-52H, and the fact that every item seen in these new pictures incorporates precision guidance of some kind.
At the front, in the center, is perhaps the most sophisticated weapon in the B-52’s quiver, the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM, a low-observable cruise missile that we have looked at in-depth in the past. The JASSM is an absolutely critical weapon to the B-52. Now that the conventional variants of the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), the AGM-86C and D versions, have been retired, it is the only non-nuclear standoff land attack weapon presently certified for use with the aircraft, including on Common Rotary Launchers (CRL) that fit inside its bomb bays. The B-52 added JASSM capability on its CRL in 2016, boosting the number of these weapons it can carry from 12 (previously carried just on its wing pylons) to 20.
While the AGM-86B/D are gone, another variant of the ALCM, the nuclear-tipped AGM-86B, does remain in use. This weapon is presently only certified to be carried by B-52Hs, which are no longer approved to carry nuclear bombs. A new nuclear-armed cruise missile, the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) missile, is now in development to replace the AGM-86B.
In the photographs from Barksdale, there are eight AGM-86B seen loaded on a CRL in front of the bomber’s nose and 12 more are loaded six each on pair pylons that can be carried on each of two underwing hardpoints. Fully loaded, a B-52H can carry 20 of these weapons, each one of which has a so-called “dial-a-yield” warhead with multiple settings reportedly between 5 and 150 kilotons. When fitted, these underwing clusters are located between the fuselage and the inner engine nacelles, rather than between the engine pods, where they are positioned in these photos.
On the far left of the picture is another high-tech store, not an offensive weapon this time, but the ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoys, or MALD, essentially a mini-cruise missile, which serves to distract and deceive an enemy air defense system to help the B-52s and their weapons to reach their targets.
Next to the MALD, from left to right, are what appears to be a 500-pound class Paveway laser-guided bomb without its front fins and a 2,000-pound class Paveway minus its front guidance section.
Over on the right is a trio of different Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, with a larger 2,000-pound class JDAM on the left, then a 500-pound class Laser JDAM (LJDAM), and finally a 500-pound class JDAM. These all-weather strike weapons, whether hauled by the B-52 or by a host of other tactical platforms, have become a signature weapon of successive campaigns in Afghanistan and the Middle East, offering GPS/INS guidance as standard, plus a laser seeker for the LJDAM variant. Typically, the 2,000-pound class GBU-31/B is reserved for larger or more hardened targets, while the 500-pound GBU-38/B is used for close air support and other strikes on smaller targets. Twenty JDAMs of various types can also be carried by each B-52 and a mix, as seen in the video below, is not uncommon.
Yet more JDAMs are arranged in a semi-circle on both sides of the bomber, these all being 500-pound class weapons without the front fins and fuzes. You could be mistaken for thinking these were freefall dumb bombs, but each one has the signature gray-colored JDAM tail kit.
On the topic of dumbs bombs, this is a category of weapons missing from this otherwise fairly complete weapons inventory, and we know that B-52s have still been dropping these unguided weapons in combat in significant numbers in recent years.
Another “missing” category of weapon is naval mines, which remain an important, if often-overlooked part of the bomber’s repertoire. The B-52 can carry the Quickstrike series of mines, essentially Mk 80 series general-purpose bombs with added modifications, plus a ballute or folding-fin tail kit to slow their fall. The latest versions of these weapons can be fitted with JDAM-ER guided wing kits, enabling mines to be sown at standoff range, which you can read more about here.
Other, more niche stores, that we don’t see in these shots include a pair of psychological warfare “bombs,” the PDU-5/B that dispenses tens of thousands of paper leaflets, and the Cold War-era M129E1/E2 that is no longer in production, but which is retained in service and performs a similar role.
With the future of the B-52 seemingly secure until at least 2050, the variety of weapons that it can carry is only going to increase. Chief among these is a new breed of hypersonic weapons, for which the Stratofortress has been identified as the ideal launch platform. First off, the B-52 is being used to test these exotic weapons, but operational versions of some of these should provide the veteran bomber with a new lease of life, including a much-needed survivability boost, allowing them to launch their weapons further still from enemy air defenses.
When the Air Force provided a briefing on the future “roadmap” for the B-52, back in 2018, the presentation included no fewer than seven different new weapons, four of which were hypersonic weapons, all of which you can read more about here. Only yesterday, the Air Force confirmed that it had performed a second (unsuccessful) test launch of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon hypersonic missile, or ARRW, from a B-52. To these weapons can be added future podded systems and perhaps even air-to-air drones of the type being developed under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s LongShot program that would provide a standoff means of engaging enemy aircraft.
With that in mind, should the Air Force repeat this photo opportunity in 2050, say, the types of weapons that might be arming the B-52 then could look very different indeed.
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