The US Air Force (USAF) has returned Ghost Rider, a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber aircraft, to service. It had been mothballed in the 'boneyard' at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB) in Arizona. The aircraft has gone through refurbishment to maintain the USAF 76-strong B-52H fleet following a mishap at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana in 2014 that left a B-52 severely damaged. The USAF may return into service another retired B-52 to replace one that was destroyed in an accident on the island of Guam.
Ghost Rider is 55 years old- the youngest among the B-52 aircraft. The production of B-52s was stopped in 1962. 744 have been produced, with 76 modernized variants still in service expected to operate till 2040, may be longer. The Stratofortress is not the only one. There are other planes in the world of approximately the same age, for instance: American Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, Lockheed P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, Lockheed U-2 spy plane and the Russian Tu-95 medium range bomber.
Under-engineering allows the B-52 to be modernized over and over again as the aircraft has plenty of physical room for growth and additional systems and components. It’s not its age but the fact that Ghost Rider is the first strategic bomber to taken out of mothballs. Will more mothballed bombers return into service again? Is it so important to spend so much time and effort on refurbishing the obsolete aircraft to make up for the loss? Does one plane make a difference?
Ghost Rider was taken from the Boneyard or AMARG (the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group), which is home to more than 4,400 out-of-service aircraft and airspace vehicles to make it the largest aircraft storage facility in the world located on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Tucson, Arizona. A certain number of aircraft are refurbished and returned to active service, some sold to friendly countries or recycled as target or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, or rebuilt as civilian cargo, transport and utility aircraft. Over the past 25 years more than a fifth of the aircraft have been returned to flying status. Among the stored aircraft are B-52s that were retired in the 1990s under the terms of the SALT strategic forces reduction treaties signed by the US and the USSR.
Actually, Davis-Monthan is home to the strategic reserve ready to reinforce military and civilian aviation. Civilian aircraft can also be used for military purposes. If need be, these aircraft can be put back into service, especially the military ones, for instance F-15 and F-16 fighters could be refurbished to be returned to the Air Force inventory in just 72 hours!
The same way, «mothballed» ships of the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) can be activated within 20 to 120 days to provide shipping during national emergencies, either military or non-military.
Some people believe that the bullet is a mad thing; only the bayonet knows what it is about. Not in our days when smart bullets make a frame (a bayonet) irrelevant in many situations. In theory, modern equipment and up-to-date weapons systems installed on an old platform can turn an aircraft into a formidable weapons system to reckon with. Bringing the old aircraft into service can greatly beef up the combat potential of USAF.
For instance, B-52 can carry out the mission fighters are designed for. In Russia, the idea to use Tu-160s for fighter missions has also been floated. In a manned aircraft-missile fight, where the ability to maneuver matters, the aircraft will lose because human capabilities have limitations. Perhaps, stealth unmanned combat air vehicles, like Boeing Phantom Ray, will completely change aerial warfare.
That’s what can happen in future. But today Ghost Rider serves as a good example to illustrate the fact that old platforms can be effectively used to rapidly reinforce aviation and boost naval capabilities. The New START Treaty limits the numbers of strategic bombers in active service. But other aircraft are not subject to any limitations. By returning into service the old aircraft stored in Davis Monthan, the United States can rapidly change the correlation of forces into its favor in contingency. The number of stored aircraft is significant and numbers do matter in contemporary combat, be it obsolete frames or brand new sophisticated platforms.
Any assessment of US military potential should take it into account. A tactical aircraft taken from mothballs to be based in Europe and capable of delivering B61-12 precision guided nuclear munitions poses the same threat to Russia as a brand new cutting edge strategic bomber flying from the continental USA. In theory, hundreds of obsolete aircraft stored in Davis Monthan today can become B61-12 delivery means tomorrow. This capability should be taken into account in any assessment of US military potential.