As part of a larger effort to bolster its fight against ISIS (aka Islamic State), the United States is deploying the B-52 bombers – the first time the Pentagon is sending the aircraft to the Middle East since the 1991 Gulf War – officials said Saturday.
An unknown number of B-52s will be based at Al Udeid air base in Qatar, replacing the B-1 Lancer bombers that were withdrawn from the fight in Syria in February, to undergo maintenance and upgrading. The officials could not disclose the exact number of B-52s sent due to "operational security reasons."
“The B-52 demonstrates our continued resolve to apply persistent pressure on Daesh and defend the region in any future contingency," said Air Force Lieutenant General Charles Brown, commander of US Air Forces Central Command, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, Al Jazeera reported.
With the withdrawal of the B-1 bomber, the total number of bombs dropped on ISIS fell to an eight-month low in February, according to statistics published by the US Air Force, Fox News reported.
Despite flying only 7 percent of strike missions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, B-1s dropped nearly 40 percent of all the bombs. In addition to carrying many more bombs than USAF fighter jets, the B-1 could loiter over the battlefield for up to 10 hours at a time. It can fly at supersonic speeds meaning it can be anywhere over Iraq and Syria in minutes.
The B-52s could be a good replacement, since it can also linger over an area for up to 12 hours at time.
The 60-year-old B-52s – based in Louisiana and North Dakota – are among the oldest active aircraft in the US Air Force, and still dominate the force's long-range bomber fleet. Launched in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration, the aircraft became iconic during the Cold War, due to its capabilities, and was the first plane to drop a hydrogen bomb, on the Bikini Atoll islands in 1956.
Though it was slated to retire some years ago, the 185,000-pound aircraft has continued to be deployed in conflict areas, as The New York Times reports, owing to its its rugged design that allows it to be deployed in any part of the world, and can carry a wide range of bombs and up to 70,000 pounds of bombs, mines, and missiles.
“There have been a series of attempts to build a better intercontinental bomber, and they have consistently failed,” Owen Coté, a professor of security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the New York Times last December. “Turns out whenever we try to improve on the B-52, we run into problems, so we still have the B-52.
Heavy bombing during the 1972 Christmas destroyed large sections of Hanoi in North Vietnam, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians, subsequently tainting the usage of the aircraft in conflicts. The killings sparked widespread international condemnation, and prompted the Pentagon to make significant changes to it. In recent years, laser-targeting pods have been added to the wings' bombers in order to allow them to drop guided “smart” bombs, the New York Times reported.
The B-52 bombers being deployed in Qatar will now be able to deliver precision weapons and carry out a range of missions without endangering civilian lives, the US officials said.
"Accuracy is critically important in this war," said Lieutenant Colonel Chris Karns, spokesman for the Central Command, Reuters reported. "Carpet-bombing would not be effective for the operation we're in because Daesh doesn't mass as large groups. Often they blend into population centers. We always look to minimize civilian casualties."