Air Force officials are calling the B-52’s engine-upgrade initiative the “biggest modernization program in its history.” DefenseOne adds, “The new engines are intended to enable the B-52 to serve alongside the future B-21 Raider as the airborne leg of the nuclear triad into the 2050s.” That means the B-52 airframe could still be flying on its 100th birthday.

In one sense, this is a testament to American ingenuity and engineering. “When we built the B-52, it was supposed to be a high-altitude nuclear bomber,” explains Maj. Gen. Andrew Gebara of Air Force Global Strike Command. “Then it became a low-altitude nuclear bomber. And then it became a high-altitude carpet bomber in Vietnam. And then it became a standoff cruise missile shooter in Desert Storm. And then it became a precision strike close air support platform in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now we're going to make it the first hypersonic shooter in the American inventory.” For a warplane born early in the Jet Age to evolve through those eras and adapt to those different roles is a credit to its design, durability and maintainers.

However, for Americans to rely on what is now a 70-year-old airframe to provide a significant share of our deterrent capabilities is, in another sense, an indictment of 21st-century America’s inability to plan, commit, sacrifice and invest. It’s both reckless and wrong to put off development, to delay recapitalization, to order our defenders to make do with planes their grandfathers—and, soon, their great-grandfathers—flew.

The numbers paint a sobering and increasingly worrisome picture. In 1989, as the Cold War thawed, the U.S. bomber fleet comprised 422 airframes. By 2001, on the eve of the War on Terror, the U.S. bomber fleet had shrunk to 181 planes. Today, as we careen toward Cold War II, the U.S. deploys just 141 bombers: 76 B-52s, 45 B-1Bs and 20 B-2s.

If those numbers don’t get your attention, the age of those airframes should: The B-2 entered service in 1993, the B-1B in 1986, the B-52 in 1955. The KC-135 tankers that keep America’s bomber force in the air began flying in 1957.

The reason the youngest of America’s bomber force is entering its 30s and the oldest is nearing its 70s, as the Lexington Institute explains, is simple: “The U.S. has not developed a new heavy bomber in three decades.”

None of this would be particularly worrisome if China, Russia, North Korea and Iran respected their neighbors and international norms of behavior. But the hard truth is that China is using military coercion and military force to gain control over international airspace and international waters; threatening its neighbors; expanding the reach, capabilities and quality of its military; building illegal militarized islands; growing its nuclear arsenal; and fielding layered air-defenses designed to target and kill U.S. bombers.

Russia is reincorporating parts of the former Soviet Union piecemeal, massing troops on the borders of NATO allies, threatening nuclear war against NATO members, violating arms treaties, and deploying air-defense systems around the Mediterranean.

North Korea is testing nukes and long-range missilery. Iran is ambushing naval vessels and maritime traffic in international waters, opening its airspace to Russian bombers, and continuing its quest to build a nuclear weapon.

Add to this list the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, which reopens that forever-broken country to al Qaeda and other jihadist groups.

The U.S. has turned repeatedly to America’s bomber force to respond to these threats and provocations: Washington has sent flights of B-52s over the South and East China Seas to enforce freedom of the skies. Similarly, to enforce freedom of the seas, B-52s have overflown Beijing’s made-in-China islands. In the Air Force equivalent of gunboat diplomacy, B-52s have flown to Australia, and B-2s have been dispatched to Alaska. When China ratcheted up its response to an international tribunal’s invalidation of its outlandish claims over most of the South China Sea, the Pentagon deployed a package of B-2s “to provide consistent and credible air power throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” as an Air Force commander reported. B-52s, B-1Bs and B-2s have teamed up for what the Air Force calls “integrated bomber operations” in the Indo-Pacific, which enfold simultaneous exercises over the South China Sea and Northeast Asia.

As Moscow reverts to its old ways, Air Force bombers have been called back to the familiar skies over Europe. In the wake of Moscow’s assault on Ukraine and continued provocations, B-52s and B-2s routinely deploy to European airbases. Some fly over Central and Eastern Europe; others over the Baltic Sea and the Arctic; still others skim above the East Siberian Sea, just beyond Russian territory.

Indeed, “demand for bombers remains high worldwide,” as the Air Force recently noted, after detailing deployments of B-52s to Europe, Africa Command and Southern Command. By the midpoint of this year, for example, B-52s had flown 1,424 sorties and logged 8,597 hours.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for America’s bombers, which have served as the tip of the spear in the post-Cold War era.

B-1Bs participated in Operation Desert Fox in Iraq (1998), Operation Allied Force in Serbia and Kosovo (1999), Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (2001-2021) in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn (2003-2011), Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya (2011) and Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq/Syria (2014-present). B-1Bs also deployed to support the strike that eliminated ISIS leader Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria (2019). B-2s contributed to Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, Odyssey Dawn and follow-on strikes against ISIS targets in Libya in 2017. And B-52s, which have been flying combat missions since Vietnam, took part in Desert Fox, Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, Inherent Resolve and Desert Storm. In fact, B-52s delivered 40 percent of all weapons dropped by the coalition during Desert Storm, according to the Air Force. Moreover, 46 nuclear-armed B-52s and B-2s are always on alert as part of America’s nuclear-deterrent force.


Put another way: Not only is the bomber force too old and too small; it’s overworked.

The good news is that America’s next bomber—the B-21 stealth bomber—is on its way to the production lines. Air Force leaders want the future bomber fleet to be sized “just north” of 220 airframes, as Gen. Timothy Ray, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, explained in an interview with National Defense magazine. To reach the 220-mark, the Air Force plans to procure 100 B-21s, while updating and retrofitting some B-1Bs and B-52s. The plan is to retire the B-2 (currently America’s only radar-evading stealth bomber) in the 2030s.

The bad news is that the B-21 hasn’t even flown yet and won’t be ready for service until 2026 or 2027. The worse news is that between now and then, just 12 percent of America’s aging bomber fleet will be able to penetrate and survive a peer enemy’s air-defense systems. Let’s hope 12 percent of a modern bomber force will serve as an adequate deterrent over the next five years.