Jeffrey LewisBUFF Blogging for Arms Control

Friend of Wonk Marc Schanz reprises the popular “BUFF Blogging” series to ask how changes in the US B-52 fleet will affect nuclear missions and arms control agreements:

I realize I haven’t reanimated the popular BUFF Blogging feature in some time – we’re all busy these days.

But Jeffrey and I have been puzzling over some numerology as the Air Force and Congress haggle over how many of the old workhorses will be roaming the skies.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention the sad news recently — all six crewmembers of a Barksdale AFB, Louisiana-based B-52H were lost in a crash off the coast of Guam July 21, during an exercise. Our thoughts are with the aircrew’s families.

The news was jarring, for the simple fact that despite their age BUFFs are well kept. One of the reasons for this is that all of the bomb trucks flying today are H models
— the newest of which rolled off the assembly line in late 1962 and unlike their older brethren, were all SAC birds back in the day — meaning they stuck to their regular high altitude polar orbits with nuclear codes waiting for The Call for years. The older models, of Linebacker II and Gulf War fame, have long since been retired (the Gs were retired shortly after the Gulf War in 1994). The last B-52 crash was also back in 1994, at a Spokane, Washington airshow, which was attributed to the pilot not understanding the physics of flying a massive aircraft low to the ground.

As of today, the total active number of BUFFs in the inventory stands at 93, according to FY 2007 force structure numbers — although 18 of those are in a status known as “attrition reserve.”

The first of 18 B-52H’s headed off into retirement on July 24, with the Air Force planning on retiring an additional one about every two weeks between Barksdale’s 2nd Bomb Wing and Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing. As a result the force structure should look something like this:

Combat Coded (CC) – Active Duty; 12 (x3) / Reserve Unit; 8
Training Coded (TF) – 15
Test Coded (CB) – 4
Attrition Reserve (AR) – 2

Total Funded: 65
Total Unfunded (BAI): 11

Earlier this year, under the impetus of the Minot-Barksdale nuclear “munitions transfer” incident, USAF leadership told Congress the service would generate a BUFF squadron at Minot dedicated solely to the nuclear mission. The move was a bit of a reversal for the service, which was previously pushing to bring the fleet down further to 56 airframes to save money for its other procurement accounts. The magazine’s Daily Report confirmed in April that the Air Force decided to implement the Global Deterrence Air Expeditionary Force concept, which involves the “buying back” of 12 B-52s to stand up an additional squadron at Minot.

It seems that only ten of these would be combat coded – it is not clear if the result will be a “super squadron” of 22 aircraft at Minot, a fourth “short” squadron of 10 or something else entirely.

If this goes through Congress unscathed, the move gives the Air Force four active duty combat coded B-52 squadrons — two at Barksdale and two at Minot — and allows the nuclear mission to move between the two bases in four month blocks, according to the service’s Air Combat Command. Each of the squadrons will conduct nuclear training for six of every 16 months and each squadron will deploy for four out of every 16 months.

While the B-52 is still in the nuke business, there will be fewer warheads to cart around in the years ahead, due to a combination of cost cutting and treaty obligations.

Estimates given by the administration as to how many warheads can still be packed into it veer all over the place. Not long ago, Jeffrey and I had a brief discussion about trying to figure out how the numbers really shake out.

This 2002 letter from the Congressional Budget Office claims “12 to 20 nuclear cruise missiles” could be deployed on each of USAF’s deployable BUFFs. The 12-20 range confused a lot of folks, including me. The BUFF, with a weapons payload of more than 70,000 pounds, is capable of carrying a pretty divergent range of weapons. As of today, its nuclear carriage ability includes a full capacity of 20 AGM-86A Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM) or eight gravity bombs.

The answer is that the “12” is not in the mix anymore. That number refers to the maximum number of AGM-129A Advanced Cruise Missiles that can be loaded on a BUFF, the service’s dedicated stealthy nuclear cruise missile yanked from the inventory as of last year.

Due to reliability and high maintenance costs, the Air Force decided that its 460 ACMs weren’t worth holding on to. For those with sharp memories, ACMs were the inadvertent guest star in last year’s errant shipment of nuclear warheads from Minot to Barksdale AFB, La. – the missiles in question were on their way to the “Boneyard” in Tucson, Arizona for decommissioning. The Air Force moved to retire the ACMs in 2007 and cut the 1,140-strong AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) inventory by more than 500 – leaving the service with 528 nuclear cruise missiles.

The force structure changes are part of a reduction that supports the administration’s directions and the Moscow Treaty requirements to get below 2,200 deployed nuclear weapons by 2012, according to Air Staff officials.

For compliance purposes with the Moscow Treaty, the United States counts, as operationally deployed, “the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads at heavy bomber bases.” That raises interesting questions. If there are four squadrons, but only one is deployed to the nuclear mission at a time do you count:

Warheads available for the all 76 B-52s? 1,520 warheads.

Warheads available for the 44 combat coded B-52s? 880 warheads.

Warheads available for the squadron on its 4 month “nuclear” block? 240 warheads?

The questions only get weirder from here. For simplicity’s sake, lets assume the nuclear mission rotates among 4 squadrons of the 12 B-52s in fourth month blocks.

If the US counts the warheads at the bases, what do you do if there are two loadings (20 ALCMs and 8 gravity bombs) for each aircraft in the squadron?

Even if the mission rotates between Minot and Barksdale, the warheads won’t. So do you count the warheads at Minot when a squadron at Barksdale is assigned to the nuclear mission?



  1. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    The H models are probably no less worn than the G models even though they were tasked to SAC service.

    If you recall, one of the tactics they regularly practiced is low level penetration —- flying at treetop height to evade Soviet radar. This kind of maneuvers put a lot of stress on the airframe and crew, far more than your average level bombing run to Cambodia.

    The reason they are in fine shape is because of meticulous maintenance programs that regularly inspected the planes, and replaced parts as they showed signs of age.

    This is back in the days when Airplanes were built with no specific “expiry date” in mind and thus, with regular maintenance, can be used nearly indefinitely.

    Contrast this with a late model Boeing or Airbus airliner which are specified for so many hours, or “take off/landing or pressurization cycles” and you see how aviation has changed. A modern civilian aircraft is “disposable”, a Buff is repairable indefinitely subject to availability of parts.

    These things will probably be around for the wonk’s children to fly on!

  2. russiannavyblog (History)

    The answer to the warhead question: It doesn’t matter. If you read the treaty, the 1700-2200 warhead requirement applies for exactly one day – 31 Dec, 2012. On 30 Dec, warheads in excess of 2200 get rolled into storage and on 01 Jan, 2013 they get rolled right back into service.

    No verification, no inspection. Just a simple bi-lateral declaration.

    The Moscow Treaty (SORT) is a sham and everyone knows it, except for the more gullible elements of the press and the public.

    To wit: the Articles of the “Treaty”:
    <blockquote>Article I

    Each Party shall reduce and limit strategic nuclear warheads, as stated by the President of the United States of America on November 13, 2001 and as stated by the President of the Russian Federation on November 13, 2001 and December 13, 2001 respectively, so that by December 31, 2012 the aggregate number of such warheads does not exceed 1700-2200 for each Party. Each Party shall determine for itself the composition and structure of its strategic offensive arms, based on the established aggregate limit for the number of such warheads.

    Article II

    The Parties agree that the START Treaty remains in force in accordance with its terms.

    Article III

    For purposes of implementing this Treaty, the Parties shall hold meetings at least twice a year of a Bilateral Implementation Commission.

    Article IV

    1. This Treaty shall be subject to ratification in accordance with the constitutional procedures of each Party. This Treaty shall enter into force on the date of the exchange of instruments of ratification.

    2. This Treaty shall remain in force until December 31, 2012 and may be extended by agreement of the Parties or superseded earlier by a subsequent agreement.

    3. Each Party, in exercising its national sovereignty, may withdraw from this Treaty upon three months written notice to the other Party.

    Article V

    This Treaty shall be registered pursuant to Article 102 of the Charter of the United Nations.


    That’s it. That’s the “treaty”. So can you see how the question has changed from angels dancing on pinheads to aggregate warhead numbers?

    My read on the treaty is that numbers can immediately jump back up to….whatever on 01 Jan 2013.

    What’s the point?

  3. Distiller (History)

    The retirement of AGM-129 is one of the biggest blunders in the U.S. post Cold War strategic weapons history. Not that the doctrine of the airborne part of the triad was worth a lot since the demise of SAC.

    If the seabased and landbased parts of the strategic deterrence arsenale would be designed more appropriate, the airborne part could be dropped altogether.

    On your last sophistic reflections on warhead counts: What do you think would happen in a strategic crisis? The other squadrons stay at home and watch CNN? The count is the number of combat coded armed delivery vehicles. (Only ALCMs in this case. Who would use freefalling bombs on a B-52 these days?).

  4. RepubAnon (History)

    The Treaty’s language implies that it “sunsets” on December 31, 2012 – unless it is extended by a subsequent agreement. So, if things are looking good, they can extend until 2020 (or whatever). However, if the parties are feeling nervous, as might happen if Russia invaded Georgia, or the Ukraine joined NATO, they can (as you correctly observe) roll the little bundles of joy out of the bunkers and onto their delivery systems…