Friday, October 26, 2012

Bayonets? How About Some Bombers?

As my regular readers know, I'm big about chronicling the exploits of military heroes, particularly on "decade" anniversaries as I did earlier today for Mitchell Paige (Medal of Honor, 70 years, 10/26/1942) and Sherrod Skinner (Medal of Honor, 60 years, 10/26/1952). It turns out that there's a 50th anniversary to note today as well, but it's not one we should be proud of.

On October 26, 1962 - fifty years ago today - the United States Air Force took delivery of a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bomber from the manufacturer, serial number 61-0040. That was the last B-52 to be manufactured.

That's right. The newest B-52 in our Air Force's inventory - the "H" model is the only left flying, 85 in the active force, 9 in the Air Force Reserve - is fifty years old today. Forget the President of the United States ridiculing bayonets or pooh-poohing cutbacks to the United States Navy; we have defense procurement issues across the board that jeopardize our Nation's defense.

Two days ago, the Public Affairs office at Minot Air Force Base (one of two flying stations for the B-52) published a heartwarming story about three generations of B-52 airmen from the same family. It is an amazing tribute to the Boeing engineers who developed the aircraft that it has had the longevity it has, and that it is expected to continue serving our Air Force until the 2040s. The brave men - and now women - who have flown the Stratofortress (affectionately known by its aircrews as the "BUFF", Big Ugly Fat, uh, Fellow ;-) ) both to protect the peace and prosecute wars are also to be commended. Perhaps they could use some newer planes though - perhaps even a new build B-52.

The B-52 has received incremental upgrades over its 50+ years of service. I found pictures via search of the last one, 61-0040, taken when it was brand new vs. today and in between; the changes are obvious, and are clearly more than just differences in paint jobs. It hardly looks like the same plane in many ways. The aircraft is still an awesome weapon of war and can punish our enemies with a full range of guided and non-guided conventional munitions and if necessary, God forbid, a full range of nuclear weapons as well.

The Air Force's fact sheet for the B-52 says each aircraft cost $53.4 million in constant 1998 dollars. There are two other bombers currently in the Air Force's inventory: the B-1B Lancer and the B-2 Spirit. How do they compare financially using the same 1998 dollars?

  • B-1B Lancer, 66 in inventory: $283.1 million each
  • B-2 Spirit, 20 in inventory: $1,157 million (that's $1.157 billion) each

Each B-1B cost the Air Force 5.3 times as much as a B-52H. Each B-2? Well, that has a price tag 21.67 times higher than the venerable B-52H.

The B-1B and B-2 certainly have their roles, and are both vital to our defenses, but the cost escalation vs. a fifty year-old aircraft that is still an unmatched weapon of war in today's aerial battlefields is indicative of larger problems. Inflation alone can't explain the cost escalation, even given the gigantic technological differences between the planes when they were introduced. Did the Air Force really get 5.3 times the aircraft value out of a B-1B than they got out of the B-52? I doubt it. Some may want to chalk this up to the "military industrial complex" or some other whacko conspiracy theory.  I think the answer is simpler: complacency. Our government has become such poor stewards of public monies and too focused on the spend rather than the value that they can't accurately evaluate anything anymore.

Looking at the bios of the commanders of the three wings that fly the B-52 (2nd Bomb Wing and 307th Bomb Wing, both at Barksdale Air Force Base and the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot), the likely oldest of the three - Colonel Jonathan M. Ellis, USAFR - was probably born the same year the last B-52H was delivered: 1962. It's unlikely that any aircrew member flying B-52s today is older than the aircraft they fly into battle. Given that the plane is expected to be in service until the 2040s, the last B-52 aircrew members may not have been born yet.

I doubt the United States could dust off the old blueprints for a B-52H and build one today for less than a B-1B cost in 1998 dollars. That's a major problem and if we're going to both maintain an effective national defense and get control of spending and deficits, it's a problem we're going to have to figure out how to solve. Spending more isn't the answer - never has been, never will be. Growing the economy, increasing revenue through growth, and then spending more effectively is.

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