Imagine a heavy bomber – such as the B52, Tu160 or B1 – is heading toward a hot zone carrying a large number of AMRAAM or longer ranged missiles. Why doesn't it also carry air-to-air missiles?

I got the idea from a TV documentary about the future projection of the air forces but I don't know why they're not already doing this? Wouldn't it be a strong deterrent capability? I'm aware of the fact that such aircraft were not designed to engage hostile aircraft; neither their speed nor maneuverability is enough for that. However, I feel they caould do serious damage to enemy aircraft formations from a relatively safe distance while being under protection of the fighters like F15, F22, Su XX...

Well, of course the enemy would be carrying similar missiles in such a scenario. Or maybe the radar of the aircraft does not have the capability to engage air to air (I don't know if such a thing is possible). But thanks to its great lifting capacity, when compared to a fighter jet, a heavy bomber may have the advantages of getting more missiles and a more powerful jammer into the action at a time. Also, especially if the aircraft was one of the low observable ones, I think it would be a game changer in any aerial conflict even when the missiles were not longer ranged than the ones the other party would be using.

So, basically, why do heavy bombers not carry air-to-air missiles today? And as a side question, what would be the benefits and trade-offs of such an upgrade to existing heavy bombers other than what I mentioned?

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    $\begingroup$ missiles work best in an area in front of the aircraft, while bombers will generally get assaulted from anywhere but head on. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 0:18
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    $\begingroup$ @ratchetfreak I think such an aircraft can carry a more capable radar onboard and will try to stay out of the range, like a less capable AWACS. And it can share data with other aircraft. But regardless of these, you have a point there. Their speed may not be enough to avoid fighters. $\endgroup$
    – biri
    Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ Voted to close as this isn't really about aviation, it's about military strategy: regardless of whether it mentions aircraft specifically. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory I see no difference between this question and some of the others you can see in the right hand column of this page under the title of "Related". But anyway, I will edit the question -soon I hope. Will try to make it a bit more aircraft-centric one. $\endgroup$
    – biri
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ The modern way of using bombers to achieve air superiority is to bomb the airfields. I don't think US+allied forces have faced a serious air-air threat to bombers since Vietnam. $\endgroup$
    – pjc50
    Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 13:00

6 Answers 6


Well, actually, they do.

Or at least it has been proposed on several occasions.

The ill-fated A-12 stealth attack aircraft was going to carry 2 x AIM-120 AMRAAMs as part of its defensive package when it went into combat.

Larger fighter-bombers like the FB-111 did in fact carry the AIM-9 Sidewinder AAM for defensive use. And the Sukhoi SU-34 advanced theater bomber derivative of the SU-27 Flanker air superiority fighter can carry all modern Russian made AAMs, both IR and radar guided in addition to air to ground ordnance.

The EA-18G Growler electronic warfare derivative of the F/A-18F Super Hornet also carries AIM-120s for defensive use.

There is rumored to be an 'Arsenal Plane' in development by the Pentagon, which is very similar to a Cold War proposal for a VC-25 Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft, a flying cruise missile launch platform based on the commercial 747-200 airplane. The DoD's new 'Arsenal Plane' is rumored to be capable of carrying virtually every conventional - and possibly air-launched nuclear - weapon in the DoD's inventory, including AAMs. Exactly what form this aircraft will take is unknown, but is supposed to be adapted from existing large cargo aircraft or commercial aircraft.

Depending on the types of AAMs desired to carry, mounting and launching them from an existing aircraft would not be a terribly difficult task. Structural modifications would be necessary on primary components to install pylon hardpoints. Additional infrastructure for power and datalink lines between mission systems and the missile would be necessary, and additional mission systems such as air-to-air fire control radars, IRST systems all would have to be installed.

Now a while a large aircraft could carry such weapons, their use against a fighter would be limited to stand-off launch and use in defensive retreat; the launch aircraft is just not designed to maneuver with a modern fighter in ACM, which limits the application of these systems in war.

So could it be done? Sure. Is it a wise idea? Well, that's debatable.

Historically, defensive armamaent for large, high value aerial assets eg bombers, tankers, transports, etc has been very ineffective. In World War II, heavy bombers were equipped with multiple gun turrets to protect against enemy fighters. So convinced were Allied planners that this strategy would give the bombers adequate protection, they sent waves of bombers over Germany with horrible results; the slaughter of heavy bombers over German airspace by Luftwaffe fighters nearly cost us control of the skies during the war. This massacre only ended with the introduction of long range escort fighters to protect the bombers against enemy interceptors. The terrible record for 'flying fortresses' protecting themselves with guns combined with the introduction of guided missiles convinced planners to eliminate defensive guns from bomber designs. In the '50s they were limited to a single tail mounted and remotely controlled turret. By the '60s, they were totally eliminated from new designs. High losses to bombers from SAMs over North Vietnam convinced planners that the best defense for the manned bomber was to avoid detection in the first place. Low altitude terrain masking, electronic warfare, passive low observable design features and stand off launched weapons like cruise missiles were the preferred protection for manned bombers in the '70s and into the '80.

Just what the future defensive systems for manned bombers remains a bit of a mystery. Both the USAF and Northrop Grumman aren't making many public comments about the new B-21 bomber under development, but it appears likely that stealth combined with a the latest net-centric warfare capabilities will be the cornerstones of its design. Whether this bomber will carry AAMs is unknown.

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    $\begingroup$ Carlo, there is some good stuff in this answer, but the F-18 is not by any stretch of the imagination a heavy bomber. FB 111 was not a heavy bomber either ... if you look at what was cited in the question for comparison. The A-12 was(maybe) medium attack (A-6 replacement) so that example, while a slight stretch at "heavy bomber" is far closer than the F-18 as an example, even the EF-18G. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 16, 2018 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ Ditto. It is distracting from the question and misleading for folks who may not know their aircraft to include so much discussion around nimble, small, tactical fighter bombers. The question was specific to heavy, strategic bombers. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2020 at 17:16

The biggest threat to bombers are ground-to-air missiles, and onboard air-to-air missiles will offer no protection against them. Did you ever wonder why big bombers now launch winged, self-guiding bombs instead of free-fall bombs? They are called standoff weapons for exactly the possibility to be launched outside of the range of interceptors.

If they should be used solely as air superiority platforms, they would be a prime target, and a single loss would be a major setback. It is more prudent to distribute the burden of achieving and maintaining air superiority over more and smaller, more maneuverable platforms, because this will provide more robustness and flexibility. Just consider today's typical conflicts: An encounter with massive fleets of enemy aircraft is unlikely (they would belong to nations with a nuclear deterrent), and fighters are supposed to establish visual contact and get confirmation from a guy who can see the target with his own eyes before they are allowed to open fire. This would be highly impractical with a converted bomber.

This is not to say that in a future conflict such air superiority platforms would be a better choice. But in the conflicts of today the smaller fighters are cleary better. Please note that an F-22 weighs more than a WWII four-engined bomber, so in a way even the small platforms of today are quite huge in the historical perspective.

What they do carry are counter-electronics which try to confuse the guidance system of ground-to-air missiles.

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    $\begingroup$ What I ask is NOT "bombers can carry missiles, so why don't they are filled with them?" Instead, my question is more related to the reasons behind the today's heavy aircrafts' incapability to get roles as air superiority beasts. In the end, with modern tools giving any military craft a good degree of situational awareness, especially when one considers Link16 and such, the only thing left seems to push a button and send the missile. Of course, the Vietnam experience stays there and sending such an aircraft alone would be a suicide. So, what are the reasons that lead to today's situation? $\endgroup$
    – biri
    Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ @biri: Thanks for the clarification. Maybe you want to edit your question, I will edit my answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 11:12
  • $\begingroup$ @biri - I agree, the question is confusing. I also misunderstood it until I read this comment. Editing your question would be appreciated. $\endgroup$
    – Steve V.
    Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ @SteveV I will edit my question when I have some time. By the way, I couldn't find more related tags such as strategic/heavy bomber or air superiority and I can't add them. $\endgroup$
    – biri
    Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ Holy crap. Not only is the F-22 heavier, it has a significantly higher MTOW. I'd have never guessed. $\endgroup$
    – BryKKan
    Commented Apr 4, 2019 at 23:27

Putting air-to-air missiles on a bomber would take a large investment, and would be less effective than putting them on fighters.

First, the sensors and systems would have to be installed on the bomber. Although space might be less of an issue on a larger aircraft, it will still add weight. Adding search radar or something similar to locate targets would be a large task.

Weapons systems have to go through development and testing. Doing this with a large bomber will be expensive.

Once this system is finally in service, it will not be as effective as a fighter. Bombers do not have the speed and maneuverability that fighters do, which makes it more difficult to get in a good firing position. They may have some effectiveness against other bombers, but fighter jets would easily out-maneuver the bomber.

With the cold war over, there is much less threat of a large-scale air war, which would be the main application for a bomber with air-to-air weapons. Small fighters are a much better match for the current threat of smaller numbers of adversaries.

As others have mentioned, putting so many weapons on one aircraft is a big risk. Though a bomber may be a bit harder to bring down, it's a much bigger and slower target. This means that a large portion of weapons is more likely to be lost. A large threat to aircraft is surface-to-air weapons, which fighters have a greater chance of surviving.


Imagine a heavy bomber – such as the B52, Tu160 or B1 – is heading toward a hot zone carrying a large number of AMRAAM or longer ranged missiles. Why doesn't it also carry air-to-air missiles?

They almost did, at least in the US. Soviet AA-missile development was years behind the US, and by the time the Soviets were even ready to consider the concept, the threat environment had changed so much that the idea of a short-range anti-aircraft weapon was no longer a priority.

The original post-war specification for the Falcon missile was for a defensive weapon. It was designed to be carried in a magazine in the rear fuselage of the B-52 (and potentially B-47), and fired through a long tube leading out the tail where the gunner station would be.

These early designs were very different than the Falcon that emerged - they were much more like portly Sparrows, with delta wings in the middle and delta control surfaces at the tail. The wings were rotated with respect to each other, so looking from the front there was a surface every 45 degrees. I assume this was to better center them in the launch tube.

The weapon used a semi-active radar system, which would track the B-4 radar signals already used for gun aiming in these bombers. Given the checkered history of the B-4, it seems highly likely these would have been of questionable use in combat.

The project didn't get far before they turned the development program over to pure experimental research in semi-active seekers in July 1947. This carried the program into 1949 when it was relaunched as a forward-firing weapon for the F-89. This version was also a tube-launched concept, this time with several missiles mounted tip-to-tail in a tube under the radar.

It wasn't until 1951 that the design emerged as the Falcon we know today. This version moved the stabilizer surfaces to the nose and rotated them so they were in-line with the wings at the back. They had dropped the tube-launched concept, which meant they were able to mount wider-span wings as well (they would have been wider than the tube previously).

It's interesting to note that the work on the IR Falcon, which I would argue is its best-known form, did not start until much later in the program, in November 1951. It developed quickly and entered service at about the same time.

For modern aircraft, the problem is the initial queuing. In the B-52 this would have been through a gun radar that would be running most of the time anyway. In the era of low-level penetration and EMCON, this is clearly a non-starter.

While it's possible to have a passive forward-firing weapon like the Sidewinder, these are visual range engagements, and if the enemy fighter hasn't seen your huge bomber before you see his smaller fighter, he's doing something wrong anyway.


Air-to-air missile won't do much to save your ass once the enemy has fired their missile on you. You can force them to turn around so their missile won't get mid-course update, but you still have to evade it. And they will fire first, because they can use long-range missile that you can't afford due to weight.

So the bombers focus on countermeasures that will help them evade missiles whether fired from ground or air. And on moment of surprise and avoiding detection in the first place. B-2 by having very small radar cross-section, reduced infra-red signature and electronic countermeasures, B-1 by flying is 200 ft above ground.

If there is a risk of enemy fighters being around, there will be a friendly fighter patrol around to help. Bombers don't operate as lone wolves. Each operation is carefully planned and appropriate unit is sent to counter each known opponent. And don't forget with aerial refuelling the fighters are now able to accompany the bombers almost anywhere.

Also note that unless the fighters have advance warning of the bombers approaching, it's unlikely they manage to intercept. They have higher maximum speed, but maintaining it requires so much fuel that they can only maintain it for couple of minutes. So before they manage to take off, which also takes couple of minutes these days, the bombers may be easily too far.

  • $\begingroup$ On the other hand, a heavy bomber, unlike a fighter, is easily big enough to carry a CIWS with which to shoot down the enemy fighter's missile. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Sean, big enough maybe, but every weight comes with performance penalty and it does not seem to be worth it in this case. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 13:49

What I understood from your question is to design a aircraft with a very powerful engine and size compared to bomber which will give large weapon bay and great payload lift capabilities, have large array of avionics solely for air superiority missions but unlike conventional air-superiority fighter(which carry less powerful radar due to limited size) it will carry a large radar possibly the size of a AEW&C's and multiple BVR missile(of range more than 400 km+ like "Novator KS-172" or say a conceptual air launched version of "s400") and tactics it will use is to engage aircraft from a safe distance(BVR) in coordination with other conventional small fighter, use its powerful radar to sweep air and guide its BVR missile.

I don't think so it's an out of box idea because:

A. Russian air were considering a aircraft specifically for such role and Tupolev have purposed tu161 a version of tu160 aircraft.

B. we also have missile with 400 km range like KS-172 with a claim range of 400km.

C. main problem we faced today in BVR engagement is that a BVR-missile have very low hit probability because missile have a small seeker(radar) which may struggle to find and lock on target by itself at BVR and also be vulnerable to jamming and thus has to rely on lunch aircraft to guide it but since aircraft had to change its formation after engagement they cannot guide missile with their main radar rather uses tail radar to guide which itself is less powerful..hence pilot had to close in as much as possible using stealth to engage from a distance where this missile have better hit probability. And also BVR missile have a problem in identification of friend and foe. but with a such conceptual aircraft which have powerful radar can guide such missile from a very long distance without worrying of formation.

But the problem we might face

A. such large avionics and Radar comparable to the size of a AWE&C's itself is very very heavy for example gross weight of E-3 Sentry(AWACS) is 344000 lbs.

B. size of such aircraft increases its radar cross sectional area

C. Advancement in missile technology has enabled to overcome such problem to much extent like modern Vympel R-37 which also have range up to 400km can be launched from sukhois

D. such aircraft program have to start from scratch and that wont be cheap and maintaining fleet will be costly and loss in war will be a big loss alternatively if we develop our BVR missiles which can be fired from fighter jet which also have maneuverability and can dodge threat.

  • $\begingroup$ So basically the exact same concept of the barrier patrol fighter that failed miserably in the 1930s. Or the heavy bomber loaded with additional defensive guns and even parasite fighters that was tried and failed in the 1940s and again in the 1950s. Or the 1960s plan to fit AIMs to the B-52 that was scrapped as useless. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 3:44

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