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B-52s, bombs and 'messaging' missions: Inside a U.S. Air Force nuclear base

A look behind the fences of Barksdale Air Force Base. Find out why aging Cold War-era bombers are still a part of the U.S. 'nuclear triad,' and what it takes to keep B-52s and their nuclear cargo ready to fly.

A look behind the fences of Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana

Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana is home to B-52 bombers that were built five and a half decades ago, but still play a central role in today's U.S. 'nuclear triad.' (U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. military's "nuclear triad" is made up of missiles, submarines and bombers, including the 2nd Bomb Wing's gargantuan B-52 Stratofortesses at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Why keep flying these aging 1950s-era bombers when missiles can reach their target with pinpoint precision in a fraction of the time?

Intercontinental ballistic missiles are hidden away underground in U.S. silos. And the point of nuclear submarines is stealth — prowling beneath the ocean so other nations don't know where they are.

Lumbering eight-engined B-52 bombers, in contrast, are extremely visible.

Beyond their tactical use in battle, the bombers are a way of hammering home an awareness of the potential consequences of a conflict. To that end, 2nd Bomb Wing has been flying regular missions from the U.S. to the Korean peninsula and back for months as the U.S. and North Korea have exchanged barbs.

For example, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stated in January that, "The nuclear button is always on the desk of my office. They should accurately be aware that this is not a threat but a reality." To which U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, "I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"

Barksdale's B-52s are meant to help back up statements like that one with something tangible.

"The bombers are the most responsive messaging part of the [nuclear] triad," says Col. Kurt Schendzielos.

"We are using our nuclear weapons every day in messaging … it's proving that we have both the capability and will, if called upon, to utilize a nuclear response."

It takes thousands of people to maintain the U.S. bombers, as well as their nuclear and conventional payloads. Here is a look inside Barksdale Air Force Base, one of the most dangerous places on Earth when measured in terms of destructive potential, and at what it takes to keep squadrons of B-52s and their deadly cargo ready to fly at — literally — a moment's notice.


In Pictures: Barksdale Air Force Base

The B-52 Stratofortress long-range bomber is among the oldest active aircraft in the U.S. Air Force.

Designed by Boeing, the first one flew in 1954. The last of the 744 that Boeing built was finished in 1962.

(David Common/CBC)

Ready to roll

During the Cold War, many B-52s sat loaded with nuclear weapons at all times. These "alert aircraft" were kept ready to take off in seconds in case incoming enemy planes or missiles were detected.

Today, the nuclear bombs are kept in secure storage at Barksdale, but can be loaded quickly by trained ground crews. 

(David Common/CBC)

Air time

Those Cold War alert aircraft were on standby but most rarely flew, so there has been relatively little stress on the airframes of the B-52 fleet considering their age.

The planes have been used to drop conventional bombs in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to Syria, and they fly regularly for things like crew training.

But whereas the average commercial airliner flies around 30,000 hours in a single decade, many of the B-52s have flown fewer than 25,000 hours in total over the six decades since they were built.

(David Common/CBC)

Spanning generations

Some of today's B-52 pilots are the children — and in some cases, the grandchildren — of crews who flew the same plane.

(U.S. Air Force)

Nuclear deterrence

Although they are relics of the Cold War, the B-52 bomber is once again what the U.S. military refers to as a key component of America's nuclear deterrent. Aircraft from Barksdale now routinely fly the 33-hour round trip from Louisiana to the Korean peninsula.

The B-52 flights are intended to send a warning as North Korea ramps up its nuclear weapons testing and rhetoric.

"We'll fly from home station here at Barksdale and we'll do an exercise with the Japanese, or fly over the South Korean range — just show that we have the capability to fly there," says Col. Kurt Schendzielos.

To reach Asia, the bombers must be refuelled at least twice in each direction.

(U.S. Air Force)

Cramped quarters

While a B-52 is enormous, it was built to carry lots of fuel and weaponry — not for comfort. On an international sortie, the typical crew of eight rotate between their duties and brief naps on a narrow bunk in the cramped crew compartment.

"The offensive compartment, it's the only place where you can really stand on transcontinental missions," says electronic warfare officer Capt. Mike Brogan.

(Ed Middleton/CBC)

Working space

Captain Leila Gerencser, a weapons systems officer, works in a compact but complex area of a B-52. 

Many parts of the planes have been removed and upgraded over the decades to keep up with changing technology.

In recent years, B-52s have been used to deliver conventional bombs in the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

(Ed Middleton/CBC)

'Definitely a challenge'

There is no other aircraft in the U.S. Air Force arsenal that can carry the same sheer volume of weaponry as the B-52.

The bomber has a maximum takeoff weight of 219,600 kilograms, including a 31,500 kg payload and 141,610 kg of fuel, according to Boeing.

When the plane is loaded with fuel and bombs, getting airborne is "definitely a challenge ... it's almost an athletic event to take the plane off," quipped one of the pilots.

Landing a B-52 is also a handful, requiring a massive drogue chute to slow down on shorter runways.

(Ed Middleton/CBC)

Payload

In addition to what's carried in the cavernous bomb bay, there are dozens of mounts where equipment can be attached below the enormous wings that span nearly the length of a 747 airliner.

A B-52 can be armed with up to 20 nuclear-capable missiles, as well as conventional bombs.

(David Common/CBC)

Chrome Dome

During the height of the Cold War, Operation Chrome Dome ensured several B-52s armed with nuclear bombs were in the air flying toward the Soviet Union at any given time.

Just before they reached the Soviet border, at what was known as "the point of no return," the planes would turn back and head home for refueling and a crew change.

While the state of nuclear readiness has increased in recent years due to threats like North Korea, it is still nowhere near the "hard alert" that was in place before 1991. Today the nuclear weapons are kept in storage, though they can be loaded at a moment's notice if necessary.

(David Common/CBC)

WILF

Crews train regularly inside Barksdale's Weapons Instruction Loading Facility (WILF) so that they're ready to move quickly if the bombers need to be armed.

Only specially qualified teams are permitted to handle nuclear cruise missiles, including training mock-ups like the ones shown here.

"We have exercises through the year where we maintain the capability. Monthly training in the proficiency of being able to use that weapon," Col. Schendzielos says.

(David Common/CBC)

Going nuclear

If the B-52 crews are ever sent on a mission with atomic weapons aboard and told that "This is not a drill…," the final step before nuclear annihilation is disconcertingly simple. One switch unlocks a nuclear missile, a button releases it.

However, there are failsafes. In addition to the rare step of arming a plane with nuclear weapons in the first place, special codes must be loaded before the aircraft leaves the ground.

Once the target is in sight, every crew member onboard must press a "consent" button. If just one person doesn't, the weapon won't be launched.

(David Common/CBC)

Warrior Center

When they aren't flying, air crews spend time at the base. Prior to the end of the Cold War, bomber crews spent two weeks in rotation at Barksdale's Warrior Center — ready to race out to their aircraft if an alert sounded, before the Soviets could destroy the base.

Today, the "alert facility" has been renovated, part of what the Air Force calls "nuclear reinvigoration" to handle new types of missions and threats such as North Korea.

(David Common/CBC)

'No. 1 mission'

Murals like this one decorate the crew areas.

"It's a bit sobering when you think about what we might be asked to do, we just hope that our deterrence is enough to prevent any kind of fight," one pilot told CBC News.

"It's our No. 1 mission: To deter our enemies from using nuclear or conventional force against our allies, or the U.S."

(David Common/CBC)

Two minute deadline

The Warrior Center's alarms are tested regularly. If the facility were placed on a war-footing level of alert, crews hearing the alarms would run from their beds, down this corridor and out to their planes.

They'd be expected to be airborne in under two minutes.

(David Common/CBC)

Deployment to Guam

While Barksdale's crew quarters have been refurbished, some B-52 aircrews from the base have just deployed to Guam, as well.

As it was during the Cold War, the U.S. military says the intent is a show of force aimed at keeping potential conflict from escalating. Being based in Guam shortens the time it would take to strike a nation like North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons. 

(David Common/CBC)

Psychological effect

While the U.S. has state-of-the-art stealth bombers like the Northrop Grumman B-2 and supersonic bombers like the Rockwell B-1​, the aging B-52s will likely continue to see active service for decades to come — precisely because they are big and visible.

"We can declare that we're flying it, which has its own kind of deterrence message," Col. Schedzielos says. "If you look at someone and say 'I'm going to punch you and there's nothing you can do about it,' and then you swing, it has a psychological effect …"

(Ed Middleton/CBC)

Retirement plan

The U.S. military's current plan is to keep its B-52s flying until 2050.

(David Common/CBC)


More from CBC:

Watch David Common's feature from The National about how the U.S. military is using aging B-52s in a messaging war against Kim Jong-un:

With the unpredictable nature of North Korea's threat looming, the U.S. is ramping up its defences by putting Cold War-era planes back in the air. CBC News went to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to take a look at the planes being deployed against Kim Jong-un 4:17