Air University Review, January-February 1986

Sea Power and The B-52 Stratofortress

Dr. Donald D. Chipman
Major David Lay

THE mission of the U.S. Navy is to fight at sea and protect our maritime security. Today, as the Soviet naval threat increases, this responsibility is becoming very complex and demanding. If a European war erupts, the U.S. Navy would defend the northern flank by blocking the Soviet Navy in the Norwegian Sea. In addition, they would have to protect the various Atlantic sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Naval Forces journal recently estimated the complexity of just is mission:

In a conflict of even moderate size, it would be necessary to reinforce the Allied Armies by some one half million men, provide some four and a half million tons of ammunition, four million tons of equipment and a hundred million barrels of oil.1

A maritime strategy that requires the Navy to defend the SLOCs while at the same time prosecuting a North Atlantic battle would necessarily require joint operations, including U.S. Air Force assets. Consequently, in 1982, after considering these contingencies, United States Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral James D. Watkins, and USAF Chief of Staff, General Charles A. Gabriel, signed a memorandum of agreement for joint maritime operations.2 Commenting on this, General Gabriel noted: "As the Falklands conflict demonstrated, air power is a critically important part of successful maritime operations. We will be putting more emphasis on such collateral roles as sea-lane protection, aerial minelaying and ship attack."3

In 1984, the Air Force changed its maritime role from a collateral responsibility to a major mission. According to basic U.S. Air Force doctrine, the aerospace maritime mission is

to neutralize or destroy enemy naval forces and to protect friendly naval forces and shipping. Aerospace maritime operations may consist of counter air operations, aerial minelaying, reconnaissance and interdiction of enemy naval surface and subsurface forces, port facilities and shipping.4

To accomplish these tasks, the U.S. Air Force has modified the B-52G model to carry the Harpoon missile and has stationed one squadron of twelve planes at Andersen AFB on Guam and another squadron at Loring AFB, Maine.5 The radar-guided Harpoon missile is thirteen feet long and weighs approximately 1145pounds with a penetrating high-explosive warhead. The B-52 carries twelve missiles and can launch them about fifty miles from the target.6 In addition, four E-3A AWACS airborne warning and control aircraft will be modified to support the B-52Gs in this maritime role.7 The speed, range, and flexibility of the B-52 working with the E-3A in a joint operation with the U.S. Navy should provide tremendous offensive fire power in any maritime battle.

Carrier Battle
Group and the B-52

The U.S. Navy's carrier battle group (CVBG) is a formidable striking force, yet the B-52 could enhance the CVBG's capabilities. If assigned to the perimeter defense, B-52s would allow the fleet to concentrate its force to an offensive strategy. Under tactical control of the E-2C Hawkeye, the B-52 could strike the enemy on the CVBG's flanks, leaving the fleet to attack the enemy's principal force.

Once the CVBG's perimeter defense is secured, the B-52 and the E-3A could coordinate attacks on hostile ships at long distances from the carrier. According to one expert, by linking the E-3A AWACS and the E-2C Hawkeye, the battle group could extend its area of operation up to 600 miles.8 Since Soviet Navy Backfires carry air-to-surface missiles with a range of approximately 200 miles and Soviet surface combatants are equipped with surface-to-surface missiles with ranges of approximately 250 miles, this extended CVBG offensive operation area is a vital tactical requirements.9

According to Soviet naval doctrine, when confronted with air attacks, Soviet battle groups will disperse.10 In this scenario, linked by E-2C and working with carrier aircraft, the long-range B-52 could attack the dispersed enemy fleet. In such a strike, the B-52 would maneuver to the far side of the enemy to destroy their surface combatants. Simultaneous weapons arriving on target within moments of one another and coming from all directions would complicate the enemy's defensive posture.

In certain maritime arenas, the B-52 would work exclusively with the E-3A, allowing the E-2C and the CVBG more flexibility. The E-3A would direct strikes against distant enemy forces, while the E-2C would remain nearer the carrier for defensive purposes. The E-3A could provide distant early warning of approaching enemy forces to the E-2C, which, in turn, would coordinate the defensive tactics.

As the E-3A located distant enemy forces, it would vector both the carrier aircraft and the B-52s into the target range. With an Air Force KC-10 tanker tasked to provide fuel, this air armada could remain aloft for long periods. If Harpoon-equipped B-52s were joined by B-52s carrying mines, the force's versatility would increase considerably. Mine-capable B-52s could establish mine fields in significant enemy approaches, such as harbors and chokepoints. Minefields would force the enemy fleet to disperse, making individual ships more vulnerable to Harpoon attack.

Recently, the Soviets have practiced their own version of aerial ship strikes. In 1982, according to the Washington Post, eight Backfires staged two practice attacks against the U.S. carriers Enterprise and Midway in the North Pacific. Although the Backfires did not come within 120 miles of the American fleet, they were well within the range of its air-to-surface missiles.11 Without U.S. Air Force B-52s, the U.S. Navy must rely on its slow P-3s to simulate this type of ship strike.

If the CVBG were escorting amphibious ships to secure an island or make a landing, the B-52 would complement this mission. The B52 could provide a secure barrier in one part of the Navy's and Marine Corp's amphibious operations area. The minelaying B-52s and the Harpoon-armed B-52s, coordinated by an E-3A, would work together to seal off any enemy surface threat in one of the sectors. With reduced assets assigned to sector defense, the Navy could then concentrate on the amphibious landings. If this area of operations is near a friendly air base, F-15s could fly combat air patrol with the E-3As providing the defensive counterair.

Thus CVBG joint operations with the Harpoon-armed and mine-capable B-52s, supported by an E-3A and a KC-10, could provide an additional warfare dimension for naval operations. This USAF air armada would defend a maritime sector, strike distant naval threats, provide over-the-horizon reconnaissance, and protect the CVBG. With this Air Force augmentation, the carrier battle group would be more flexible and thus better able to prosecute the main battle objective. As the Soviets have demonstrated with their Backfires, Badgers, and Bears in support of their navy, this mission is no longer an option but is a necessity.

Surface Action
Groups and the B-52

Composed primarily of a U.S. battleship and other surface combatants, surface action groups (SAGs) lack organic air power. The Air Force could partially remedy this liability. If the SAGs journeyed near air bases such as in Iceland, fighters, B-52s, E-3As, and KC-10s could provide continuous air support. These planes would rendezvous with the SAG and position themselves in the direction of the suspected threat, providing both defensive and offensive capabilities. An E-3A could fly a patrol barrier while fighters circled above it in a combat patrol pattern. If enemy surface patrols were sighted, the E-3A could vector the Harpoon-armed B-52 toward the threat. To increase the loitering time, KC-10s would provide fuel.

This maritime aerospace armada would provide the SAG with both over-the-horizon location of enemy activities and a communication relay between various U.S. naval ships. Once an engagement began, the B-52 would attack the enemy with its Harpoons. When the Soviets deployed surface combatants into the Norwegian Sea, their Badgers, Bears, and Backfires would provide fleet air coverage.12 In a similar manner, B-52s and other USAF aircraft could be used to defend the U.S. Navy's SAGs.

Sea Lines of
Communication and the B-52

With its inherent advantages in speed, range, and flexibility, the B-52 could operate independently in support of other primary sea power objectives. Capable of traversing vast distances rapidly, the B-52 could be tasked to accomplish a variety of significant maritime missions where time and distance to the operating area are critical factors. In time of pending war, patrolling the various chokepoints surrounding the Russian littoral would require quick reaction and sustainability. B-52s tanked by KC- 10s could respond immediately.

In chokepoint defense, a patrolling B-52 could hinder the Soviet Navy's attempts to sail out of the inland seas into the blue waters of the oceans. Such a chokepoint as the Pacific's Kuril Islands is critical to the Soviet Pacific Fleet operations. In March 1985, a Soviet carrier battle group, composed of the Novorossiysk, four cruisers, three destroyers, and two replenishment ships, conducted a major exercise in the Pacific. This Soviet carrier group sailed south through the straits of Tsushima into the Pacific and then back to home port through the Kuril Islands, entering and departing the Pacific through critical chokepoints.13 In 1905, the Japanese destroyed nearly the entire Russian Baltic Fleet in the Tsushima Strait during the Russo-Japanese War. 14 B-52s, armed with mines and Harpoons, could respond quickly to any U.S. Navy requirement for blocking the Soviet Navy at Tsushima or the Kurils. Mining the Kuril Island chain would force the Soviets to reconsider their strategy and keep them away from critical Pacific SLOCs. In the Atlantic, B-52s could patrol chokepoints such as the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap and Baltic entrances.

Defending the sea lines of communication is another appropriate maritime mission for B-52s. In a European conflict, hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies would be shipped through the Atlantic SLOCS. This logistical mission would require large convoys and, in the early battle stages, a massive airlift. As these convoys and USAF aircraft transited the Atlantic, enemy surface ships armed with surface-to-surface missiles and surface-to-air missiles would attack. Assigning U.S. Navy combatants to protect these SLOCs would be costly in terms of time and assets. Overall, assigning Navy ships to this defensive mission would detract from the North Atlantic forward offensive strategy. Instead, B-52s could engage enemy ships threatening these convoys, allowing naval units to concentrate on attacking the enemy's main battle fleet. The B-52 would patrol threatened segments of the sea lanes to ensure passage of the convoy and airlift. On such a patrol, the B-52 would communicate with the convoy commander and the various escort ships, assuming a role similar to the World War II escort carrier that provided protection for convoys crossing the mid-Atlantic Gap.15

In addition, the B-52s could attack Soviet merchant ships. The Soviet merchant fleet comprises more than 1700 ships. These vessels are often found sailing on the distant oceans, carrying supplies to Soviet allies. Many of these merchant ships can convert to serve as Soviet Navy supply and replenishment ships.16 With these vessels scattered throughout the world's oceans, finding and destroying them would divert a tremendous number of U.S. naval assets. For years, B-52 crews have conducted reconnaissance flights identifying various Soviet merchant ships in an Air Force reconnaissance mission called Busy Observer.17 This experience would be valuable when B-52s seek out and attack Soviet merchant ships.

North Atlantic
Scenario and the B-52

In a major European war, the following assumptions concerning the battle of the North Atlantic are likely. As the aggressor, Soviet forces would have the advantage of early mobilization and surprise. The Soviet strategy would include securing the north maritime flank as Soviet southern forces fight across the European plain. The Soviets would move into the North Atlantic by taking parts of Norway and sending their navy into the Norwegian Sea. After securing Norwegian airfields, they would deploy their land-based naval aviation units to these areas and rapidly advance their Northern Fleet into the North Atlantic. These combatants would attempt to prevent Western forces from reinforcing Norway. As the Soviet naval presence increased, the area under their control would extend farther into the North Atlantic to threaten vital Western bases in Scotland,' northern England, and Iceland, as well as the North Atlantic SLOCS.

As the Soviets attempted to secure the North Atlantic and the Norwegian Sea theater, U.S. naval forces would deploy into a striking position.18 However, as the U.S. fleet sailed north to confront the enemy's main force, a second Soviet naval threat could appear from the south. The Soviet Union's surface combatants in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic would sail north, placing the U.S. Navy between opposing enemy forces.19

In this scenario, an air armada of B-52s could assist the U.S. Navy in establishing maritime superiority. Approximately ten B-52s carrying 120 Harpoons could fly south to meet the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean Soviet squadrons. These aircraft would be refueled by KC-10s and vectored by E-3As. As this air armada converged on the Soviet ships, it would disperse in order to launch missiles from several directions. A complete saturation of the enemy with more than 100 Harpoon missiles should suffice.

OVERALL, the B-52, along with the support planes of E-3A and KC-10s, could assist the U.S. Navy in future engagements with a variety of missions, including ship strike, minelaying, reconnaissance, intelligence, and communication links. The acceptance of this new Air Force mission by the U.S. Navy has the blessing of the Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman. Lehman, a Naval Air Reservist and an advocate of sea power, stated in October 1982 that he welcomed the Air Force to the wartime mission of destroying the Soviet fleet and keeping allied sea lines of communication open.20

While joint Navy and Air Force maritime operations are still in the formative stages, the Soviets are very concerned. Recently, a concerned Soviet Navy captain commented on the future of this program:

U.S. Air Force specialists do not exclude the possibility of employing not only the B-52 bombers, but also the FB-111, SR-71, and B-1 aircraft as well as U.S. Tactical Air Command aircraft in a war at sea. The same specialists a also are discussing the joint use of B-52 bombers as a platform for antiship weapon systems and E-3A AWACS long-range radar surveillance and control aircraft, which surpasses the B-52 by at least fivefold in the capability of detecting targets.21

The successful war at sea will require new tactics and new considerations. The B-52, a sea-power ship strike weapon system, is just the beginning.

Maxwell AFB, Alabama
Virginia Beach, Virginia


1. "The Air Situation in the North Atlantic," Naval Forces, vol. V (1984), p. 60.

2. Department of the Navy and Department of the Air Force, Memorandum of Agreement on Joint USN/USAF Efforts for Enhancement of Joint Cooperation (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1982).

3. F. Clifton Berry, Jr., "A Carrier Aviation Primer," Air Force, November 1982, p. 61.

4. Department of the Air Force, Air Force Manual 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force (Washington: Government Printing Office, 16 March 1984).

5. "B-52s at Andersen to Carry Harpoons," Air Force Times, 20 May 1985, p. 31.

6. Susan H. H. Young and John W. R. Taylor, "Gallery of USAF Weapons," Air Force, May 1985, pp. 149-66.

7. "B-52s at Andersen to Carry Harpoons," p. 31.

8. George C. Wilson, "Pentagon Maps New Navy-Air Force Cooperation in Sea Warfare," Washingion Post, 7 October 1985, p. 21.

9. Norman Polmar, Guide to the Soviet Navy, 3rd edition (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1983), pp. 356-67.

10. Robert Waters, "Navy, Air Force to Share in Defense of Vital Sea Lanes," Hartford Courant, 25 September 1982, p. 1.

11. "New Soviet Bombers Fake Strike against U.S. Navy," Washington Post, 9 November 1982, p. 16.

12. Peter Almond "Maneuvers by Soviets, A Surprise to NATO," Washington Times, 5 April 1984, p. 6.

13. Richard Gross, "Soviet Naval Forces Simulate US Aircraft Carrier Attack," Jane’s Defense Weekly, 27 April 1985, p. 701.

14. S. G. Gorshkov, The Sea Power of the State (Annapolis, Maryland: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1979), p. 91.

15. E. B. Potter and Chester W. Nimitz, editors, Sea Power: A Naval History (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1960), p. 91.

16. National Strength Information Center, The Challenge of Soviet Shipping (New York: National Strategy Information Center, 1983), pp. 1-45.

17. Defense Marketing Services, Code Name Directory, 13th edition (Greenwich, Connecticut: DMS Publishers, 1984), p. 135.

18. This scenario is described in LCDR R.E Arnold Shrubb, RN, "NATO North to Norway," Surface Warfare magazine, May/June 1984, pp. 12-14, and John Berg, "Soviet Front-Level Threat to Northern Norway," Jane’s Defense Weekly, 2 February 1985, pp. 178-79.

19. According to U.S. Department of Defense, Soviet Military Power, 1985 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1985), pp. 116-17, the Soviets maintain approximately six naval vessels in the South Atlantic and twenty-three in the Indian Ocean.

20. George Wilson, "Pentagon Maps New Navy-Air Force Cooperation in Sea Warfare," Washington Post, 7 October 1982, p. 21.

21. Captain N. Kabalin, "Over the Ocean-Strategic Bombers," Selected Translations from Morskoy Sbornik, March 1981, pp. 79-83.


Donald D.Chipman (B.A., California State University; Ph.D., Florida State University) is the Educational Advisor to the Commandant, Squadron Officer School, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He has served on the faculty at Georgia Southwestern College, Americus, and was a U.S. Navy flight officer and navigator for the EC-121 Typhoon Reconnaissance Squadron in Agana, Guam. Dr. Chipman is coauthor of two boooks on philosophical issues in education has written several articles published in academic journals, including the Review. He is a graduate of Squadron Officer School.

Major David Lay (B.A., College of St. Thomas; M.S., University of Southern California) in a USAF Liaison Officer to COMSTRIK-FLTLANT. Previously, he has served as Chief, Maritime Branch, Office of Current Opertions, HQ SAC, Offutt AFB, Nebraska. Major Lay in a graduate of Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor