US B-52 BUFF Bombers ‘Flex Muscles’ Over Russian Provocation; Military Expert Reminds Of Its Dark Past

Days after Russia fired a missile into the Sea of Japan, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force command announced on March 31 that Japanese and US Air Forces held joint drills that saw participation by the US B-52 strategic bombers.

Held on March 30 in the skies over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, the US-Japanese joint drills focused on working out tactical cooperation in the air. From the Japanese side, 12 F-15 and four F-2 fighters were pressed into duty while the USAF sent two B-52 bombers.

The drills have been watched keenly as they come just two days after Russia’s navy fired supersonic anti-ship missiles at a mock target in the Sea of Japan. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) said in a statement, “the target, located at a distance of about 100 kilometers (62.14 miles), was successfully hit by a direct hit from two Moskit cruise missiles.”

The joint drills involving the US Air Force B-52 strategic bomber are part of an emerging pattern. The service often dispatches this bomber aircraft to intimidate its adversaries and establish deterrence in volatile regions.

For instance, the B-52 held joint air drills with South Korea in a show of force against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats earlier this month. The participation of the B-52 in these air drills, followed by extensive large-scale joint exercises, was significant as they are nuclear-capable bombers.

Further, the B-52, popularly known as the BUFF, has also been undertaking patrol missions under the banner of NATO. United States Air Force B-52s and Allied fighters routinely conduct coordinated combined air-to-ground drills over Europe.

The bottom line, therefore, is that the B-52 bombers are in every region where the US wants to establish effective deterrence.

However, these bombers are not invincible. In a recent incident, the Russian Su-35 reportedly intercepted two B-52s over the Baltic Sea. The Russian side claimed that the two bombers were fast approaching Russia’s borders.

‘Radars of the Western Military District Air Defense Force on duty detected two airborne targets over the Baltic Sea, flying towards the state border of the Russian Federation,” TASS cited the ministry as saying.

“After the foreign military planes moved away from the state border of the Russian Federation, the Russian plane returned to its home base,” read the statement from the Russian MoD. The B-52 frequently flies sorties over the European region as deterrence against Moscow’s forces.

Not A Threat Per Se, But An Excellent Tool Of Deterrence

The B-52 has been a long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber in service since the 1950s. The bomber has a typical combat range of around 8,800 miles (14,200 kilometers) without aerial refueling. It can carry up to 70,000 pounds (32,000 kg) of weapons, making it a formidable war machine.

Even though the USAF has unveiled the next-generation B-21 Raider, it intends to keep the B-52 operational in the foreseeable future. The bomber is reportedly getting a brand-new F130 turbofan engine to replace its outdated TF33 engines.

However, despite its cutting-edge capabilities, the bomber is not entirely indomitable and does not pose a massive threat to adversaries.

Indian Air Force veteran and military expert Vijainder K. Thakur told EurAsian Times: “There are two reasons why the bombers are sent near trouble spots- 1) Messaging, and 2) To gather intelligence by provoking an adversary response, which includes radar tracking, frequencies, adversary response in terms of interception, radar emissions associated with such interceptions, adversary professionalism, etc.”

When asked whether the bomber poses any significant threat, Thakur said, “even if adversaries of the US know that the bombers won’t pose a threat, they have to react as if they do pose a threat. In short, these bombers are used to message and provoke to deter the enemy. A provocation always poses the danger of unforeseen escalation. It is all about deterrence.”

B-52 Bomber
File Image: B-52 Bomber

Notably, these bombers were readied for a potential nuclear strike on enemies at the height of the Cold War. The EurAsian Times previously reported on the training imparted to the B-52 crews on how to act and survive after they have conducted a nuclear strike.

The world has largely overcome the threat of an impending nuclear strike, even though rivals often engage in nuclear brinksmanship.

Both the Cold War adversaries have come a long way. Even though the US flew its B-52 missions to deter Russia, it is aware that the Russian military has powerful high-altitude air defense systems, like the S-400, that can quickly shoot down the BUFF in case of a confrontation, according to a military expert who requested anonymity.

Besides Russia, another US adversary – China – also possesses long-range air defense systems, including the S-400 Triumf, that can shoot down US bombers. However, that prospect is entirely hypothetical as the US Bombers are only dispatched for power projection and conducting deterrence sorties.

File:S-400 Triumf (27102989027).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
S-400 Triumf – Wikimedia Commons

The vulnerability of the B-52 bomber was first exposed in the Vietnam War when nearly a dozen B-52s were shot down or damaged by Soviet-made S-75 Dvina high-altitude air defense systems fielded by North Vietnam.

North Vietnam’s missile gunners are said to have downed 15 B-52s, with six bombers shot down in one night. However, the Vietnamese records have at least one of these B-52s shot down by a North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilot.

North Vietnamese Air Force (NVNAF) MiG-21 pilot Pham Tuan is said to have successfully downed a B-52 bomber on December 27, 1972, the ninth day of the 11-day bombing campaign.

However, the USAF learned from its mistake. During its military operations in Iraq, codenamed ‘Desert Storm,’ the service made a strategy to obliterate the Russian-origin air defense systems first so they could not shoot down the bombers. Detailed coverage of this can be read here.

Although the USAF found a way to circumvent the air defenses that could shoot down the B-52s, the danger was never eliminated and has only grown stronger with the modernization of air defense capabilities in adversarial countries, including Russia, China, as well as North Korea.