Cold War Era

US Military Analyst Explains why B-52 Bombers would have had no trouble getting through Soviet air defenses to their targets during the Cold War

‘As late as the 1980s, PVO was not particularly good at low altitude interception. Frankly, KAL 007 showed the world that they weren’t that good at easy, high altitude interceptions, either,’ William Sayers, former military analyst.

The B-52 Stratofortress was America’s first long-range, swept-wing heavy bomber. It began as an intercontinental, high-altitude nuclear bomber, and its operational capabilities were adapted to meet changing defense needs.

B-52s have been modified for low-level flight, conventional bombing, extended-range flights and transport of improved defensive and offensive equipment — including ballistic and cruise missiles that can be launched hundreds of miles from their targets.

After it became operational in 1955, the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat F****R, as the B-52 is dubbed by its crews) remained the main long-range heavy bomber of the US Air Force during the Cold War.

But how were B-52s expected to get through Soviet air defenses to their targets?

‘Quite frankly, the B-52s would have had no trouble at all from Soviet defenses except in the most extreme cases. That may sound like a bold statement, but it was quite true,’ William Sayers, military analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Counterterrorism Center and CIA, explains on Quora.

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‘First and foremost, the B-52s would have arrived hours after the war began, and hours after ICBMs and SLBMs had ravaged the Soviet defenses. Many of the missile strikes were designed specifically to blow holes in the Soviet defenses, taking out SAM battalions, interceptor airfields, and air defense command posts. Others would have done damage by generating electromagnetic pulses, blinding radars and frying computers.

‘Then, there’s the fact that PVO (Soviet national air defense) couldn’t be everywhere at once. In fact, much of Soviet territory would have gone virtually undefended because of the vast expanses. Soviet air defenses were well mapped out, and the bombers would have taken routes avoiding most of them, until they got in the vicinity of their targets. As late as the 1980s, PVO was not particularly good at low altitude interception. Frankly, KAL 007 showed the world that they weren’t that good at easy, high altitude interceptions, either. In 1978, they shot down another KAL airliner over the Kola peninsula and that aircraft circled around for an entire hour looking for a place to crash land, after the interceptor pilot reported the airliner destroyed. These were peacetime interceptions of single, defenseless airliners that were making no effort to evade interception. Can you imagine how difficult that would have been in the middle of a nuclear war against multiple targets that were well equipped to defend themselves?

‘Then, of course, were the aircraft themselves. First off, the rather large airframe was stuffed full of Electronics Countermeasures (ECM). Black boxes on black boxes, chaff bundles and flares by the hundreds. And then there was the defensive gun. When the Vietnam War was over, the score was B-52s – 2, MiG-21s – 0.’

Sayers continues:

‘Then, there were these:

‘That’s an ADM-20 Quail decoy missile popping out of the B-52’s bomb bay. B-52s generally carried 2 to 4 Quails, in addition to nuclear bombs in the bomb bay. The Quail was a drone that could fly a pre-planned course of up to 400+ miles while reproducing the radar and infrared signature of the actual bomber. To make matters more confusing, it could drop chaff along the way.

‘Then, there were these:

‘The AGM-69 Short-Range Attack Missile. The SRAM had a range of up to 110 nm, Mach 3 speed, and a 210 kt nuclear warhead. It could fly a ballistic profile for maximum range, or for shorter distances, it could fly a terrain masking profile. The B-52 could carry eight of them on a rotary launcher (shown above) in the bomb bay, and a further 12 under the wings, for a total of 20. How accurate was it? I had a friend whose crew was chosen to launch SAC’s yearly live SRAM. The navigator started to update the missile on where it was, and the missile told him to stuff it, that it knew better where they were. The nav told the missile to stuff it, and pressed the override button forcing it to take the nav’s position input. When they launched the weapon with forced launch coordinates, the last thing they heard that missile say was, “I told you sooooooo…” And no one ever saw it again.

‘The missile was good enough to take out primary targets, but its main purpose was to clear the bomber’s path of air defenses, so they could get to the target. They say that when that missile was launched, there was nothing in Heaven or on earth that could stop it or keeping it from impacting within the lethal radius of the warhead. And the BUFF carried 20 of them…

‘Finally, there was this guy:

‘The AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile. The ALCM started life as the Subsonic Cruise Armed Decoy, or SCAD. The idea was to update the Quail, but force PVO to track them down and kill them because they were armed. At some point, the potential of the missile was realized, and the role of decoy was dropped in favor of it becoming a primary weapon. Range: 1,500 miles. Warhead: 150 kt. Accuracy: This is the missile with the original, “In your window!” capability. The B-52 could carry up to 20 of these, or a mix of ALCMs and SRAMs.’

Sayers concludes:

‘Until the fielding of the SA-10/GRUMBLE (S-300) SAM in the 1980s, PVO’s weapons were obsolescent and their command/control systems remained that way. They had too much territory to cover, a hopeless mission, and lacked the ability to efficiently deal with clueless, defenseless airliners. It would have been a wipeout. Of course, at this point, there wouldn’t have been a lot of celebrating.

‘Oh, and by the way, the B-52 loss rate for Operation Linebacker II (the infamous “Christmas bombing” of North Vietnam in 1972) was 2.1%. 15 losses in 714 sorties. Hardly the slaughter it’s often made out to be.’

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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • You say that the B52 was the first long range, high altitude, swept-wing bomber for the US, but don't let the B47 hear you say that....

    • My dad was crew chief for B-47 in Plattsburgh, NY and he would say the same. Though, he would capitulate to the Stratojet design flaws that made take-off and landing a chore.

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