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The B-52 was introduced in 1955, and is still used by the US Airforce, and is expected to remain in use till the 2040s.

On the other hand, the A-4 Skyhawk was introduced in 1956 and retired in 1998/2003.

Now granted these are completely different aircraft. What I'm wondering, is why one aircraft can remain so useful for so long, while others quickly become obsolete.

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    $\begingroup$ Two words: Good enough. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Sep 21 '14 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ But it will be replaced by the F35 soon enough. (sarcasm) $\endgroup$ – Keegan Oct 14 '14 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ The only thing unfortunate about the B-52's in the fleet is that their engines are very inefficient by today's standards (approximately 30% less according to the article). Fortunately, it would appear that the AF is looking at fixing this exact problem: defensenews.com/story/defense/show-daily/afa/2015/02/12/… $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Apr 17 '15 at 6:16
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    $\begingroup$ The Tu-95 "Bear" and the German MG-42 / MG-3 immediately spring to mind. Sure we can make marginally better today, but those babies are there, and we know everything that might be wrong with them, as opposed to new designs where we might not know what's wrong with them at first. (Like the F35. :-D ) $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Apr 17 '15 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ BBC article - "How does this 1950s behemoth survive in the era of drones and stealth aircraft?" $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Dec 10 '15 at 10:40
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Three reasons:

  1. The B-52 stayed useful by taking on "easier" roles as it aged.

    • It actually started life as a high-performance penetrator, relying on speed and altitude to stay safe. Think Early Cold War, shortly after WWII.
    • When ground-launched missiles improved, the B-52 was forced into flying low-altitude penetration underneath radars (a role for which it was NOT designed and rapidly wore out the airframe) accompanied by a host of other aircraft to protect it and help it penetrate defenses. Despite their escorts, we lost low-dozens of B-52s in Vietnam.
    • Later in the Cold War, the B-52 was completely outmatched by air defenses (fighters, SAMs, etc), and had little hope of penetrating defenses (at either low or high altitude) to drop nuclear bombs. Instead, it was relegated to flying in friendly/neutral airspace, lobbing long-range nuclear cruise missiles into the Soviet heartland (a tactic they feared more, as it turned out, than manned low-level penetrators). It was basically a missile bus.
    • In the Gulf War, the B-52 only flew after air defenses had already been defeated by other aircraft (F-16s, F-15s, F-111s, etc). It was basically a bomb truck.
    • During ALLIED FORCE (1999), "B-1Bs and other conventional (non-stealthy) aircraft could not survive in the face of double digit SAMs, even when employing advanced decoys and other countermeasures."
    • The B-1 program, btw, went through a similar progession, starting out as a high-performance penetrator, then forced into even lower-altitude penetration, then also relegated to bomb/missile trucking, pushed back by AAA, MANPADS, SAMs, look-down shoot-down radar, improved Soviet interceptors, and Soviet AWACS. In fact, the B-1 and B-52 fly largely* the same missions today.
    • In 40 years, the B-52 went from being the US' primary strategic tool against another superpower to being outclassed by small nations.
    • Bomb/missile trucking is an "easy" job, but far from ideal. You can't bomb your targets until the air defenses have already been defeated---after the "first week" of a war, the most critical phase, when you need them the most. In other words, the B-52 (and B-1) are relatively easy to shoot down, so they're not nearly as useful as they used to be. You can't fly them unless many of the toughest enemies are already dead. So you can't use them as often as you want.
    • @MSalters phrased it quite nicely: the reason the B-52 (and B-1) hasn't changed is because other aircraft are doing the hard work for them (tearing down enemy defenses), and such aircraft have advanced immensely. But that amount of support is quite resource intensive, so if you wanted to fly B-52s in the "first week" when enemy defenses are still effective, you'll need a lot of help:
      value of stealth
      (Image source: Beyond the "Bomber": The New Long-Range Sensor-Shooter Aircraft and United States National Security - Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.), 2015.)
      The same was true with strike packages during Desert Storm, eg only a third of the aircraft dropped bombs while the rest provided support (jamming, anti-radiation, top cover, etc).
  2. We didn't build enough B-1s and B-2s to replace it, so we kept some B-52s to fill in the gaps (we don't have any other suitable heavy bombers in inventory, this is the only choice).

    • The 100 B-1Bs were just a stopgap until the B-2 showed up, of which we meant to build 132 (cut to 21 airframes). Had the Cold War continued, the B-2 would have comprised the bulk of today's bomber force.
  3. We were busy buying new fighters and cargo planes.

    • The official, stated goal is to recapitalize the entire bomber fleet (less the B-2) because it's increasingly obsolete. That's worth repeating: the B-1 and B-52 are near obsolete. They're not nearly capable enough. The next bomber isn't another B-1, B-52, or modded 747 because we don't want to maintain the same capabilities. We want more capability--much more--than what we currently have. We've only waited this long because replacing the airlift and fighter fleets took priority.
    • The LRS-B (new stealth bomber; formerly NGLRS) will replace the B-52 starting around next decade. The contract is expected to be awarded very soon. The Pentagon briefed a select group earlier this month. Looks very promising---well managed, on budget, very capable, and surprisingly mature.
      • UPDATE: The B-21 (ex-LRS-B, ex-NGLRS) was indeed awarded 27 Oct 2015, a month and a half after this post was originally written. Very little is known, but it is indeed a stealthy bomber (the official render closely resembles the outer mold line of early B-2 iterations before the redesign). And it is indeed on time and under budget by ~9% (APUC = \$511M vs. the \$550M requirement, FY10\$).

In short, we still fly the B-52 today because we don't have a choice, not because we want to.


Parting thoughts:

I want to emphasize that the B-52 did not remain effective in its intended role (penetrating the USSR on Day 1), upgrades notwithstanding.

Yes, the B-52 survived multiple replacements (eg XB-70, B-1A), but not because it was more capable (it wasn't; the B-70/1A went higher/faster/lower/with more payload), but because those potential replacements couldn't outpace Soviet defenses either and so were cancelled in favor of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles... except the B-2, which could outpace Soviet defenses but was curtailed when those Soviet defenses disappeared. The B-52 survived basically because of luck: against the XB-70 and B-1A, it was the incumbent, already bought and paid for; against the B-2, history smiled.

Also, the B-52 did not "survive" the B-1B. The B-1B was never meant to replace all B-52s in the first place. The B-1B was meant to fill an urgent requirement as a stopgap from ~1985-1995 until the B-2 could enter service. Unlike previous B-52 would-be replacements, B-1B production was not cut short: 100 were ordered, and all 100 were delivered, essentially on time and on budget (though that was actually partly the problem).

Thankfully the B-52's range and payload kept it productive during its long service.


Some background.

  • The USAF operates ~160 bombers:
    • 76 B-52s
    • 63 B-1s
    • 20 B-2s
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    $\begingroup$ A good write-up, especially in view of LRS-B's (eventual) advent. $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Sep 26 '15 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ The LRS-B is well managed, on budget, very capable, and surprisingly mature? What sort of alien technology is this built with? Those adjectives haven't applied to a US military aircraft program since, what, the SR-71? /snark $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Sep 29 '15 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ Nifty graphic. Please note your source on that. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 8 '15 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ @freeman Probably since the P-51, which was nicely under-budget, well managed, mature, capable and even delivered in record time. Possibly since the British paid to develop it. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 13 '16 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory: P-51 being "capable" after the British provided it with a proper engine. ;-) $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Feb 17 '16 at 12:27
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It's worth digging into the details. The B-52H, which is the model in service today, was not built in the 1950s but the early 1960s (which, I admit, is not a significant difference).

The key, however, lies in the upgrade programs that have happened constantly since the design first hit front lines. It's had airframe life extensions, avionics upgrades, and weapons systems changes around every 10-15 years, with the latest round happening in the last five years.

That's the how. The why is that it just happens to be damn good at the roles it is given. It's also highly reliable despite (because of?) its age, and as of around ten years ago was not excessively expensive to fly:

The B-1 averaged a 53.7% ready rate and the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit achieved 30.3%, while the B-52 averaged 80.5% during the 2000–2001 period. The B-52's \$72,000 cost per hour of flight is more than the B-1B's \$63,000 cost per hour, but less than the B-2's \$135,000 per hour.

Ultimately it comes down to the fact that properly maintained aircraft seem to have shockingly long service lives. There are still 1930s-era DC-3s and C-47s still flying scheduled freight service in Alaska.

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    $\begingroup$ I imagine designing and constructing a B-52 equivalent today might cost several orders of magnitude more per aircraft than the B-52 cost in the 50's and 60's, even if you include all the refit costs. $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Sep 22 '14 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed regarding the service life of aircraft. The PA-28-140 I've been flying was built in 1970 and certainly designed well before that. It's not at all uncommon to see planes built in the 1960s in GA. $\endgroup$ – reirab Dec 23 '14 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ It's probably also worth adding that the US seems to find itself in a lot of cases recently where the sophisticated high-speed missile-dodging radar-avoiding ECM-deploying capabilities of the B1/B2 are just not necessary. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Apr 17 '15 at 5:37
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    $\begingroup$ Not only is it good at carrying out the jobs its been given but it's supposed replacement, the B1, while good at doing what it was designed for, couldn't do all the things the B52 could. The B52 is just a very good, flexible, general purpose, non-specialist design that can cover a very wide variety of missions. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Apr 17 '15 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ "which, I admit, is not a significant difference" - It is when you consider that it allowed the B-52H to use the more powerful and efficient JT3D turbofan rather than the anemic, thirsty JT3C turbojets used by the earlier B-52 variants. $\endgroup$ – Sean Mar 9 at 4:13
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The B-52 is nothing more than a massive bomb-truck, so it doesn't need a whole lot of improvements. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. It's not pretty, fast, stealthy, or smart. It's a vehicle to get a whole lot of bombs from point A to point Boom.

Did you know the USA military still uses the M2 Browning machine gun from WWII?

B-52s are great when you want to say "F--- you and everything within 5 miles of you".

I leave with an old saying:

Cluster bombs from a B-52 are very accurate. They are guaranteed to hit the ground.

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    $\begingroup$ heck, the US military still uses the M1911 pistol (though it's no longer the official sidearm, select troops are offered the option to use it) from, you guessed it, 1911. Of course those (and the M2s) are not the same ones built in 1911 but new ones produced much later, like a few years ago in case of the M1911s. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Apr 17 '15 at 5:06
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    $\begingroup$ Bomb-truck; very good descriptor. The B-52 was originally designed to haul nukes across the Arctic Circle to targets in Russia, but if you can do that, you can haul practically anything a similar distance (much more with the advent of in-flight refueling), from conventional iron bombs to MOABs to cruise missiles and JDAMs, and you don't need all that much in the way of airframe changes. Avionics and engines have been the real areas of improvement for large aircraft, and the B-52 has taken advantage of both. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Sep 11 '15 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ In 1993 I saw a Marine howitzer with a 1943 mfgr. plate. It was not a static display. $\endgroup$ – radarbob Jan 16 '16 at 3:34
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The B-52 is essentially nothing more than a cargo truck today. It's still useful in that role, although it's obsolete by most reasonable standards.

It does help that the B-52 has its engines in nacelles, which simplified engine upgrades. To its cargo truck role, the engine performance matters more than anything. And as an old and simple plane, there's nothing on board which causes expensive repairs. Cargo trucks and the B-52 alike are judged on cost.

To succeed in its role, other planes have to clean the sky around the B-52. Those planes are subject to much more evolutionary pressure. The F-16, introduced 20 years after the B-52 is already outdated in that role. Currently you'd use the B-2, F-22 and/or F-18E/F. Those planes are much more capable of surviving in contended airspace.

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    $\begingroup$ @dwjohnston: Well, it's a bomber, so yes it drops bombs. But that's a rather unglamorous task: load bombs, fly to target, release bombs, fly back. A cargo plane could do the same. If the target to bomb shoots back, you don't send the B-52 but the B-2. (Or you drop missiles from underneath the B-52, again a glorified cargo plane role) $\endgroup$ – MSalters Sep 21 '14 at 23:20
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    $\begingroup$ @shortstheory the last B-52 rolled off the line about 50 years ago. They're still making spare parts and upgrading them at times. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Sep 22 '14 at 6:40
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    $\begingroup$ @shortstheory: A commercial plane has a duty cycle of 25%+. 50%+ is normal. A B-52 spends <5% of its time airborne, and a lot of the other time in maintenance. And presumably quite a few of the flights are without bomb load, so with less mechanical stress. Commercial planes rarely fly empty. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Sep 22 '14 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ @shortstheory it's the planned retirement date now. And I'd not be surprised if they extend it beyond that, given that there's nothing even on the drawing board to replace it and aircraft development programs for the USAF now seem to take 25-30 years to even lead to a pre-production run (just see the F-35...). It is insane, but that's how DC bureaucracies now work. Where the original B-52 was designed literally in a hotel room on a sketch pad over an evening (of course the details took longer, a few months), we now need decades to do the same using supercomputers. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Sep 22 '14 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Msalters Nope, they are looking for a new variant of a stealth bomber. Wikipedia (although not doctrine), shows more information. $\endgroup$ – Bassinator Oct 15 '14 at 1:12
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Excellent points. Simply put, the B52 is cost effective. Ghost Rider is an example. One of our B52's was damaged, so Ghost rider will be retrofitted (from mothballs), for $13M. The military's decision to upgrade electronics and weapons systems in all B52s shows their reliance (and confidence) in the aircraft. http://www.dodbuzz.com/2013/07/12/air-force-begins-massive-b-52-overhaul/

It's impossible to cost justify replacing it (the tried) so BUFF keeps flying.

It is not stealthy, but don't underestimate its ability to jamb signals. Even using non-powered bombs, from its altitude, glide bombs can be released 60 miles from target.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, all aircraft are upgraded as they age to keep them relevant, not just the B-52. They also cost more to fly per hour than the B-1, a younger and more capable platform. It's relatively easy to justify replacing them---they're old and near-obsolete (can't survive in the face of even out-dated air defenses)---that's why they're scheduled to be retired first when the new bomber (the LRS-B) enters service. $\endgroup$ – Hephaestus Aetnaean Sep 26 '15 at 4:29
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The B-52 is still in service due to its high degree of effectiveness. It is not the only plane still in service by means of effectiveness. Other aircraft, such as the F/A-18 Hornet/Superhornet, F-16, F-15, E-2C, C-2, C-130, and UH-1 are still in service because they are still very effective and it would be cost ineffective to replace them. It was anticipated that the F-35 would replace the F/A-18, but after the 3 trillion dollar price tag for the program, and the fact that in test runs against F/A-18 Superhornets and E/A-18G Growlers the F-35 was greatly outperformed, the Department of the Navy decided they will not replace it until around 2035. The B-52 is still very effective for bringing heavy tonnage of explosive ordinance and forcing the hostile force into surrender. If it isn't broken, don't fix it.

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    $\begingroup$ Howdy, and welcome to Aviation.SE! I certainly don't disagree with your answer, and with some supporting evidence (links to Pentagon/3rd party studies with some relevant quotes in your answer would be nice), it will make a nice addition. As it stands, it doesn't add much to the answers that are already here. Please be sure to take the Tour and browse through the rest of the Help section to familiarize yourself with the StackExchange Way™ of doing Q&A vs most boards free-form general discussion. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Mar 22 '16 at 16:28
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Couple of other reasons:

It's paid for. Sure, the Buff's engines are not that efficient, even after being re-engined with turbofans, but the cost of the extra fuel isn't anywhere near the $100-150 million it would cost to replace the B52 with a Bone, or the half billion that a B2 costs. You can buy a lot of JP4 for that sort of money.

We bought a whole bunch of them. Final production was 742, which is a lot of heavy bombers. Why scrap them and blow money on a replacement, when they still work? The 50 or so B52's still in service have a huge inventory of spare parts to draw from.

The conflicts the Buff is used in now tend to be lower intensity, with lower threat to the aircraft. Why use a half billion dollar B2 and risk loss from operational problems, if the opponent doesn't have radar to detect the incoming bomber, or SAM's to do something about it even if they do detect it coming in?

The maintenance procedures were worked out decades ago, so no surprises there. Yes, it has a bleed air system known to be a nightmare, but service is well documented, and fairly inexpensive. The B1 has a swing wing, which can be rather pricey to maintain.

It is very tough. It's predecessor, the B47, was quickly retired when low altitude flying caused cracks in the wing spars. The Buff can fly at low altitudes without suffering that problem. Low altitude characteristics became critical when Soviet SAM's made high altitude bombing a very dangerous occupation. With a very strong airframe, B52's can take a lot of hours of flight without serious decay. There is a well documented video of a B52 minus most of its horizontal stabilizer, that sheared off in flight due to excessive side loads. It was landed without further damage.

For many years, NASA operated a pair of early B52's, tail numbers 002 and 008, with the original and very inefficient turbojet engines. Reason? Those engines perform better at very high altitudes than turbofans, and the NASA B52's were used for research and launching test aircraft at very high altitudes. The last one, 008 was finally retired without many hours on the airframe, still sporting a cutout section on it's starboard wing flap, put there to accommodate the X-15's tail when it was being hauled aloft for launching.

Due to that cutout section, 008 was always landed without flaps. (would have produced asymmetric lift) That must have been fun...

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    $\begingroup$ "well documented video of a B52 minus most of its horizontal stabilizer" It was the vertical stabilizer. $\endgroup$ – A. I. Breveleri Dec 8 '17 at 6:14
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The B-52 is slower, less survivable, more expensive, and can't carry anywhere near the payload of a B-1B. In fact, it can only carry 56% the bomb weight of the B-1B.

With the removal of the AGM-129 ACM from service, the B-52 no longer has any capability to deliver nuclear weapons into airspace defended by modern SAM systems.

So why is it in service? Likely political considerations concerning base closures.

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    $\begingroup$ "Likely" in the sense that you can back that up with actual facts and maybe a citation or two, or "likely" in the sense that it's your own personal opinion? The personal opinion of some anonymous person on the internet isn't worth a whole lot without something to back it up. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 14 '14 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ Also, Wikipedia (not infallible, I know) dramatically disagrees with your claims about payload, saying that a B-52H can carry 31,500kg of bomb and a B-1B 34,000kg. So the B-52 carries 93% of the bomb load. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 14 '14 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ Wikipedia states that combined payload of B-1B is 56,700 kg. 34,000 kg is the internal payload capacity. $\endgroup$ – user22620 Oct 31 '14 at 3:58
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    $\begingroup$ @user22620 and no B-1B would be sent into combat on a deep penetration mission (which is what it was designed for) with external stores. Those were never seriously intended to be used in anger. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Apr 17 '15 at 5:03
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting Neither of these aircraft is capable of performing the originally intended mission, so again the point is irrelevant. Can you provide some evidence that B-52 use provides overall cost savings versus decommissioning the entire fleet and accomplishing those sorties with other aircraft? $\endgroup$ – user22620 Apr 17 '15 at 16:19

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