Heavy Metal Heroes: Bomber Fleets

The Cold War days of nuclear-armed big bombers patrolling on a hair trigger are (hopefully) long behind us, but long-range strike capability remains an air power priority. With Russia restarting the Tupolev Tu-160 and Boeing upgrading B-1Bs, here’s our survey of the world’s biggest long-range bomber fleets, based on data drawn from Flightglobal’s  MiliCAS database.

1: Harbin H-6; 150 in service

China’s air force has a fleet of around 120 aged H-6 bombers in use, while its navy is also believed to have approximately 30 in its inventory.

2: Boeing B-52; 78
_BEL5157 B-52H 60-0036 412TW right front in flight m

Famed for its memorable role in Dr Strange love, the B-52 remains a key front line type for the US Air Force, which still uses the H-model version. The type has been in USAF service since 1955, featuring heavily in Vietnam and even the US space program – as the air-launch platform for X-15 rocket planes.

3: Tupolev Tu-22 M; 70
Nicknamed the “Backfire” by NATO, the swing-wing Tu-22 M forms part of the Russian air force’s strategic bomber force.

4: Boeing B-1B; 62

AIRBORNE -- A B-1B Lancer flies over the Nevada and Utah region.  The aircraft and its crew are from the 37th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)
The type will mark its 30th anniversary of service with the USAF later this year. Conceived in the 1960s as a Mach 2 replacement for the B-52, the Rockwell (later Boeing) B-1B Lancer was ultimately developed as a long-range, low-level penetrator capable of M1.25 at high altitude. Boeing is undertaking an upgrade programme to install an all-digital cockpit and connect the bombers to a global communications network.

5: Tupolev Tu-95; 43

More commonly referred to by its NATO reporting name, the “Bear” is a regular sighting for quick reaction alert pilots with numerous alliance air forces. Additional examples of the propjet-powered type are being upgraded to extend their service lives until the availability of Moscow’s replacement PAK-DA strategic bomber.

6: Northrop Grumman B-2; 20

A B-2 Spirit soars after a refueling mission over the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, May 30, 2006. The B-2, from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., is part of a continuous bomber presence in the Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
The B-2 Stealth bomber is the most expensive aircraft ever produced, with a unit cost in excess of $1 billion. That cost ensured plenty of controversy in Washington, even among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially as it did not enter service until 1997 – long after the demise of the Soviet Union it was meant to attack. Although B-2s saw (non-nuclear) service in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, the type’s highlight was probably a 2008 crash after take-off from Andersen AFB in Guam; the aircraft was destroyed but the two-man crew survived to tell the tale of what was probably the most expensive crash in the history of aviation.

7: Tupolev Tu-160; 13

Moscow is to relaunch production of its variable-geometry Tu-160, describing the “Blackjack” as “the best aircraft in its class”. Our data suggests a current active fleet of 13, including a first upgraded Tu-160M, with another 14 in line to be manufactured.

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