Cold War: B-52 Stratofortress

B-52G Stratofortress. Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

On November 23, 1945, only weeks after the end of World War II, the US Air Material Command issued performance specifications for a new long-range, nuclear bomber. Calling for a cruising speed of 300 mph and a combat radius of 5,000 miles, AMC invited bids the following February from Martin, Boeing, and Consolidated. Developing the Model 462, a straight-wing bomber powered by six turboprops, Boeing was able to win the competition despite the fact that the aircraft's range fell short of the specifications. Moving forward, Boeing was issued a contract on June 28, 1946, to build a mock-up of the new XB-52 bomber.

Over the next year, Boeing was forced to change the design several times as the US Air Force first showed concern over the XB-52's size and then increased the required cruising speed. By June 1947, the USAF realized that when complete the new aircraft would nearly be obsolete. While the project was put on hold, Boeing continued to refine their latest design. That September, the Heavy Bombardment Committee issued new performance requirements demanding 500 mph and an 8,000-mile range, both of which were far beyond Boeing's latest design.

Lobbying hard, the president of Boeing, William McPherson Allen, was able to prevent their contract from being terminated. Coming to an accord with the USAF, Boeing was instructed to begin exploring recent technological advances with an eye to incorporating them into the XB-52 program. Moving forward, Boeing presented a new design in April 1948, but was told the next month that the new aircraft should incorporate jet engines. After swapping out turboprops for jets on their Model 464-40, Boeing was ordered to design a completely new aircraft utilizing the Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojet on October 21, 1948.

A week later, Boeing engineers first tested the design that would become the basis for the final aircraft. Possessing 35-degree swept wings, the new XB-52 design was powered by eight engines placed in four pods under the wings. During testing, concerns arose regarding the fuel consumption of the engines, however the commander of the Strategic Air Command, General Curtis LeMay insisted the program move forward. Two prototypes were built and the first flew on April 15, 1952, with famed test pilot Alvin "Tex" Johnston at the controls. Pleased with the result, the USAF placed an order for 282 aircraft.

B-52 Stratofortress - Operational History

Entering operational service in 1955, the B-52B Stratofortress replaced the Convair B-36 Peacemaker. During its initial years of service, several minor issues arose with the aircraft and the J57 engines experienced reliability problems. A year later, the B-52 dropped its first hydrogen bomb during testing at Bikini Atoll. On January 16–18, 1957, the USAF demonstrated the bomber's reach by having three B-52s fly non-stop around the world. As additional aircraft were built, numerous changes and modifications were made. In 1963, the Strategic Air Command fielded a force of 650 B-52s.

With the US entry into the Vietnam War, the B-52 saw its first combat missions as part of Operations Rolling Thunder (March 1965) and Arc Light (June 1965). Later that year, several B-52Ds underwent "Big Belly" modifications to facilitate the aircraft's use in carpet bombing. Flying from bases in Guam, Okinawa, and Thailand, B-52s were able to unleash devastating firepower on their targets. It was not until November 22, 1972, that the first B-52 was lost to enemy fire when an aircraft was downed by a surface-to-air missile.

The B-52's most notable role in Vietnam was during Operation Linebacker II in December 1972, when waves of bombers struck targets across North Vietnam. During the war, 18 B-52s were lost to enemy fire and 13 to operational causes. While many B-52s saw action over Vietnam, the aircraft continued to fulfill its nuclear deterrence role. B-52s routinely flew airborne alert missions to provide a rapid first strike or retaliation capability in case of war with the Soviet Union. These missions ended in 1966, following the collision of a B-52 and a KC-135 over Spain.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt, and Syria, B-52 squadrons were placed on a war footing in an effort to prevent the Soviet Union from becoming involved in the conflict. By the early 1970s, many of the early variants of the B-52 began to be retired. With the B-52 aging, the USAF sought to replace the aircraft with the B-1B Lancer, however strategic concerns and cost issues prevented this from occurring. As a result, B-52Gs and B-52Hs remained a part of the Strategic Air Command's nuclear standby force until 1991.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the B-52G was removed from service and the aircraft destroyed as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. With the launch of the coalition air campaign during the 1991 Gulf War, the B-52H returned to combat service. Flying from bases in the United States, Britain, Spain, and Diego Garcia, B-52s conducted both close air support and strategic bombing missions, as well as served as a launch platform for cruise missiles. Carpet bombing strikes by B-52s proved particularly effective and the aircraft was responsible for 40% of the munitions dropped on Iraqi forces during the war.

In 2001, the B-52 again returned to the Middle East in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Due to the aircraft's long loiter time, it proved highly effective in providing needed close air support to the troops on the ground. It has fulfilled a similar role over Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. As of April 2008, the USAF's B-52 fleet consisted of 94 B-52Hs which operate from Minot (North Dakota) and Barksdale (Louisiana) Air Force Bases. An economical aircraft, the USAF intends to retain the B-52 through 2040 and has investigated several options for updating and enhancing the bomber, including replacing its eight engines with four Rolls-Royce RB211 534E-4 engines.

General Specifications of the B-52H

  • Length: 159 ft. 4 in.
  • Wingspan: 185 ft.
  • Height: 40 ft. 8 in.
  • Wing Area: 4,000 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 185,000 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 265,000 lbs.
  • Crew: 5 (pilot, copilot, radar navigator (bombardier), navigator, and electronic warfare officer)


  • Power Plant: 8 × Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-3/103 turbofans
  • Combat Radius: 4,480 miles
  • Max Speed: 650 mph
  • Ceiling: 50,000 ft.


  • Guns: 1 × 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon (remote controlled tail turret)
  • Bombs/Missiles: 60,000 lbs. of bombs, missiles, & mines in numerous configurations

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: B-52 Stratofortress." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, September 9). Cold War: B-52 Stratofortress. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: B-52 Stratofortress." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).