With no fanfare and little media notice, an extremely famous American will turn 60 years old this Sunday.
It was on Tax Day in 1952 that the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, hulking symbol of the Cold War, accident-prone target of the unkind acronym "B.U.F.F.," the bomber several generations believed would usher in the death of humanity, made its first flight.
Some interesting points about the B-52:
• It was considered old-fashioned even before its operational life began. In the late 1940s the Air Force almost shut down the plane’s development out of concerns that it would be obsolete by the time it entered service.
• It comes honestly by its status as a cultural icon. That first flight was made by storied test pilot Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston, who is widely believed to have been the model for Major T.J. "King" Kong, the colorful B-52 pilot played by Slim Pickens in the Stanley Kubrick movie Dr. Strangelove. Over the years the B-52 has lent its name to a cocktail, several motion pictures, countless nightclubs around the world, and a great dance band whose flamboyantly gay stylings now seem as quaint and dated as the bomber itself.
• Though it has a reputation as a nuclear-age terror weapon, it has never delivered nuclear ordnance. To this day, the only plane that has dropped atomic bombs in anger is the B-52’s propeller-driven predecessor B-29 Superfortress.
• Despite all the above, the B-52 is expected to remain in service until 2045. It performed shooting-war service this century over Afghanistan and Iraq. It will almost certainly outlast flashier successors like the Rockwell B-1 and the Northrop Grumman B-2. Given the vagaries of budget and the challenges of fully retiring any legacy system, it’s not impossible that the unloved B.U.F.F. could end up spending a full century in service.
More striking than the B-52’s military longevity, however, is the question of why we’re still putting pilots into the cockpits of military aircraft at all. With each passing week, the arguments for moving to all-unmanned military aviation [pdf] attain greater speed and elevation, and the case for maintaining piloted warplanes sputters closer to the ground. Yet manned military aircraft systems continue to pull in hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.
The F-22 Raptor ended up being such a money-suck that the future of that airplane is in doubt. The F-35 formerly known as the "Joint Strike Fighter" long ago became the most expensive procurement program in military history. The training and maintenance of pilots incurs costs that are uniquely vast in the never-cheap economy of military personnel spending. With the United States armed forces not having engaged a serious enemy in air-to-air combat since the Vietnam War, the age of the fighter plane seems to be well and truly over.
In most conceivable battle environments, American air supremacy is a given. Even if this were not the case, if the United States were to face a real enemy air force in contested air space, it’s not clear manned warplanes would be the best way to do it.
The most compelling argument against an all-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) force is that these still have to be controlled from the ground, introducing a time delay that can be critical in an engagement.
"A real vulnerability of the current generation of remotely operated planes is that communications link to the ground," Peter W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute, wrote in an email. "It’s a tether that slows things down, is easily clogged by the big amounts of data going through it, and most importantly can be targeted by an adversary via electronic means."
But there are ways around all these problems. Singer notes that more research is going into making UAVs more autonomous. And time delay is not a new issue. "The delay (‘latency’) is compensated for within the software," said James Dunnigan, a military analyst, wargame designer and editor of StrategyPage.com, in an email. "This has been a common problem in remotely controlled devices for a long time. Solutions are available and it is not a show stopper, even in combat UAVs."