The iconic B-52 has been serving in America’s nuclear deterrent arsenal since 1952. But lot has changed on the BUFF and its mission since it was on the front line against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In fact as explained by in an interesting article appeared on Scout.com, the venerable strategic bomber has gone from being designed to deliver huge nuclear bombs on Russia to dropping precision-guided conventional bombs on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Today, it is far more likely to deliver its nukes using air-launched cruise missiles than a gravity bomb.
But little did most people know that part of its post-World War II heritage equipped the lengthy bomber with tail guns.
Most versions of the BUFF had four .50-caliber M3 machine guns – fast-firing versions of the historic Ma Deuce (1,000 rounds per minute, according to GlobalSecurity.org) that were also used on the F-86 Sabre. Two B-52 versions went with different armament options, the B-52B (twin 20mm cannon in some planes) and the B-52H (an M61 Vulcan).
In the B-52G and H, the tail gunners were in the main cabin, using a remotely operated turret. Earlier models instead had the tail gunners sitting in a shooters seat in the rear of the plane, providing the BUFF an extra set of eyes to detect SAM launches.
Those tail guns even saw some action: in fact during the Vietnam War, B-52Ds used their tail guns to score kills. against North Vietnamese MiG-21 Fishbeds.
The B-52s up to the G model ultimately used the MD-9 fire-control system for the tail guns. The B-52G used the AN/ASG-15 for its remotely operated quad .50 caliber turret while the B-52H used the AN/ASG-21 to guide its M61 Vulcan.
But as we have already explained, the early 1990s posed unique challenges to the Air Force and on Sep. 16, 1991 General George L. Butler, then Strategic Air Command (SAC) commander, announced the elimination of the gunner position and the deactivation of the guns on the B-52 as a cost reducing initiative.
“My decision to eliminate the guns from the ‘BUFF’ was not an easy one,” stated Butler in a letter to the defense aerial gunners. “It stemmed from the collapse of the soviet threat and the leading edge of very sharp budget cuts…Our Air Force is going to go through a lengthy period of turmoil as we adapt to a dramatically changing world.”
However also an incident during Operation Desert Storm (ODS) contributed to change things for the BUFF. A friendly fire incident occurred when a tail gunner thought an Iraqi plane was closing in. The plane was actually an Air Force F-4G Wild Weasel. The crew of the U.S. jet mistook the B-52G’s AN/ASG-15 for an enemy air-defense system. The Weasel crew fired an AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile), which damaged the BUFF. The BUFF returned to base, and was reportedly named “In HARM’s Way” as a result.
Few months after this incident, the Air Force announced that the tail guns were going away.
By 1992, the guns were non-functional on the aircraft.
Noteworthy, Chief Master Sgt. Rob Wellbaum one of the last BUFF aerial defensive gunners retired on May 12, 2017. However as John Stallings, President of the Air Force Gunners Association and a reader of The Aviation Geek Club, told us, currently there are at least 3 former BUFF gunners who are either on active duty or in the Reserves/Guard, but unfortunately the association does not have a list of the members who are still serving.
Nevertheless, a generation has passed since the B-52 had a tail gunner and gone are the days when a fighter had to watch its steps when trying to get behind the B-52.
The following video gives you the chance to see how M61 Vulcan cannon and its AN/ASG-21 Fire Control System worked on the B-52H.
Photo credit: Gothic2 via Wikipedia and U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
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Great Acft. One landed at Mildenhall about 1980 after losing all flaps and such on left wing. What a Mess. Big old bomb bay. Big hole in Wing. I took pictures of all of it for Depo People to determine if it was flyable. There should be pictures out there. Sorry I did not keep any. Amazing how little room inside for the crew. Lots for Bombs. The tanker's boom punched hole in wing. They patched everything up. tookoff with 10 on board. 45 degree angle up int he air. 5k foot AA Refueling. Takeoff was like U2 to me. They flew it all the way back to go old USA.