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The B-52 could rise again, this time to fight ISIS

March 4, 2016 (Photo Credit: Senior Airman Benjamin Raughton/Air Force)
This story, originally published on March 4, has been updated with comments from Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. 

The B-52 Stratofortress could begin dropping bombs on the Islamic State group come April.

The bombers would be headed to the Central Command area of operations to replace the B-1 Lancers, the last of them  returning in January.

"While the B-1s will be receiving much needed modernization and maintenance, the venerable B-52, with its similar capacity and accuracy and endurance, remains ready and able to meet combatant commander requirements," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at an Air Force briefing on March 7. 

"Now, we're waiting for final approval, but there have been recent infrastructure improvements that now allow the necessary support to deploy the B-52 in theater," she said. 

Officials were  quoted discussing the aircraft's potential deployment at an Air Force Association conference last week. The B-1s should return this summer after they receive additional upgrades. 

Neither the number of B-52s nor number of airmen, under Air Force Global Strike Command, have ​been disclosed yet for the operation. 

"Additional details about all of that, should it happen, will be available at the appropriate time," James said. 

The aircraft, which had been used to drop unguided bombs in previous wars, including ​Afghanistan, can now be used to provide backup with the accuracy of precision-guided munitions. If scheduled, it would be the first deployment for the bombers to fight Islamic State targets, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“We’re going to keep the B-52 around. It provides some missions for us that are hard to replicate, primarily the range and payload the airplane provides,” Lt. Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told Air Force Times on Feb. 18.

The service is focusing on a modernization effort to make sure the B-52s stay flying for years to come, potentially as late as 2040, officials have said. 

How the B-52, nicknamed the "Big Ugly Fat Fella" or BUFF, will define its new legacy against the terror organization in ​territories across Iraq and Syria remains to be seen. 

Its payload capacity — 70,000 pounds​,  which includes “gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision guided (cruise) missiles and joint direct attack munitions” —  just skirts the B-1's capability. The Lancer, which can fly at 900-plus miles per hour, can hold 5,000 pounds ​more within the aircraft. Under Operation Inherent Resolve, the B-1s dropped 3,800 munitions on 3,700 targets in six months, according to the 28th Bomb Wing, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.

The Stratofortress, first launched in 1954, deploys regularly for exercises stateside, as well as to Europe and the Pacific.

Three B-52 ​bombers and more than 200 airmen deployed last Friday for a military exercise, Cold Response, led by Norway. The bombers are assigned to the 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

In the last two years, the aircraft has visited the European AOR more than a handful of times to train in theater security exercises in an effort  to reassure allies who are increasingly worried about Russian aggression.

A singular B-52 flew over South Korea on January 10 after North Korea conducted an alleged hydrogen bomb test. It was joined by South Korean F-15 and U.S. F-16 fighters, and later returned to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, after the flight.


Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at

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