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Venerable B-52 may outlive snazzier, younger bombers

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WASHINGTON — The B-52, which people have called “aging” seemingly for ages, is now likely to outlive its younger, snazzier brother bombers, the swing-wing B-1 and the stealthy B-2.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced Monday that her service will begin retiring the B-1 and B-2 fleets as soon as it has built enough B-21s, the next-generation bomber that is still on the drawing board and is expected to begin entering service in the mid-2020s. The pace of retirement will depend on how quickly the B-21 is acquired.

An Air Force spokeswoman, Ann Stefanek, said the B-1 and B-2 are likely to keep flying into the early 2030s.

The B-52 is expected to soar past those timelines, remaining part of the combat force until mid-century.

Aware of the political ramifications of any change in the structure of the bomber force, Wilson said the number of bomber bases will not shrink.

“If the force structure we have proposed is supported by the Congress, bases that have bombers now will have bombers in the future,” Wilson said. “They will be B-52s and B-21s.”

Officially nicknamed the Stratofortress and informally known as the Big Ugly Fat Fellow, the B-52 gained lasting fame in Vietnam as an aerial terror. It is scheduled to stay in service until 2050, assuming its gets planned upgrades, including new engines. In its 2019 budget request Monday, the Air Force asked for $280 million for B-52 upgrades.

Boeing built eight different models of the B-52 between 1952 and 1962. There are 75 planes left, split between Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and Barksdale Air Force in Louisiana. No longer the saturation bomber associated with the Vietnam war, the B-52 had been updated and adapted to a range of combat missions. It has been used extensively in the war in Afghanistan as well as in the air campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Just last week a B-52 pummeled a Taliban site in northern Afghanistan.

“The aircraft has played a leading role in Air Force operations for decades, and was recently reconfigured with a conventional rotary launcher to increase its reach and lethality,” the U.S. military said in announcing the Afghanistan attack.

The B-1 has an unusual history. It was initially developed in the 1970s, cancelled and then revived by President Ronald Reagan. It originally was designed for either nuclear or conventional attack but is now strictly for non-nuclear combat.

The B-2, the world’s first radar-evading bomber, was developed in secrecy by Northrop (now known as Northrop Grumman) in the 1980s and was initially best-known for its stunning price tag of more than $1 billion per aircraft, of which 21 were built.

The Air Force now has 20 B-2s, all based at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and 62 B-1s at several bases including Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

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