The B-52 is deemed by experts as the most successful military aircraft ever produced. It began entering service in the mid-1950s, and by 1959 had replaced the remarkable but obsolete B-36 as the backbone of Strategic Air Command's (SAC) heavy bomber force. Its principal mission was nuclear deterrence through retaliation. The B-52 has been astonishingly adaptable. It was initially designed to achieve very high-altitude penetration of enemy airspace. But when that concept was rendered outdated by the development of accurate surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the B-52 was redesigned and reconstructed for low-altitude penetration. It has undergone eight major design changes since first flown in 1952, from B-52A to B-52H. Although much the same in appearance, the most recent version is a radically different aircraft, superior in every way to the first models.
When the Vietnam situation began to deteriorate in 1964, key SAC commanders began pressing for SAC to get involved in any U.S. action in Vietnam. But the first problem was one of mission. How could a heavy strategic bomber designed to carry nuclear bombs be used in Vietnam? The answer was to modify the B-52 again. Two B-52 units, the 320th Bomb Wing and the 2nd Bomb Wing, had their aircraft modified to carry "iron bombs," conventional high explosive bombs. After a second modification, each B-52 used in Vietnam could carry eighty-four 500-pound bombs internally and twenty-four 750-pound bombs on underwing racks, for a 3,000-mile nonstop range. The two bomb wings were deployed to operate from Guam as the 133rd Provisional Wing. Later, additional units were deployed to Thailand and Okinawa to reduce in-flight time, and thus warning time. The first B-52 raids against a target in South Vietnam took place on June 18, 1965. The target was a Vietcong jungle sanctuary. The results were not promising. Two B-52s collided in flight to the target and were lost in the Pacific Ocean. The results of the bombing could not be evaluated because the area was controlled by the Vietcong. Although the media criticized the use of B-52s, ground commanders were much impressed with the potential of the B-52. Previous attempts to use tactical bombers and fighter-bombers to disrupt enemy troop concentrations and supply depots had been unsuccessful. But the B-52 was a veritable flying boxcar, and the effect of a squadron-size attack was to create a virtual Armageddon on the ground.
Ironically, the most effective use of the B-52 in Vietnam was for tactical support of ground troops. B-52s were called in to disrupt enemy troop concentrations and supply areas with devastating effect. B-52 raids were also flown against targets in North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. General William Westmoreland considered the B-52s essential to U.S. efforts in Vietnam. From June 1965 until August 1973, when operations ceased, B-52s flew 124,532 sorties which successfully dropped their bomb loads on target. Thirty-one B-52s were lost, eighteen shot down by the enemy (all over North Vietnam), and thirteen lost to operational problems.
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