Naval Air: Heavy Bombers Practice Ship Plinking


August 17, 2013: The B-52 recently became the second American heavy bomber to have the Sniper ATP targeting pod installed. Five years ago the B-1B got Sniper pods and soon used them in combat for the first time. These pods enable the aircraft crew to see, in great detail, what's happening on the ground, even when the aircraft is flying at 6.8 kilometers (20,000 feet) altitude. For example, the pod users can tell if someone down there is dressed as a man or a woman, or is carrying a weapon. Heavy bombers can also use the pods for attacking ships at sea.

Two years ago a B-1B successfully used laser guided JDAM bombs against moving naval targets. These tests involved the B-1B using its Sniper targeting pod to put the laser beam on the target. The JDAMs homed on the laser light reflecting off the moving target ships. The B-1B thus became the latest of many air force heavy bombers that have been equipped to serve as maritime patrol and anti-ship aircraft. Back during World War II, thousands of B-17 and B-24 bombers (and many two engine bombers) were used to patrol and control vast ocean areas. Late in the Cold War the B-52 was active in this area but that ended in the 1990s. But in the last decade this maritime activity has been restored. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used B-52s to check out suspicious merchant ships approaching North America, often when the ships are still about 2,000 kilometers from the coast. The B-52s take pictures of the ship and transmit that back to DHS. A B-52 can do this while taking part in a training exercise. B-52s have a lot of jobs they can while over the oceans.

The new usefulness of heavy bombers at sea is largely the result of technological changes in maritime reconnaissance. This includes things like the introduction, and combining, of lightweight search radars and targeting pods. With the targeting pod you can stay high  and far away (over twenty kilometers) and still get a close look. Thus a B-52 with a targeting pod is an excellent naval reconnaissance aircraft, as is the more recent B-1B. The Sniper ATP pod is also used on the F-15, F-16, F-18, and A-10 aircraft.

B-52s and B-1Bs can also deliver naval mines, something they still practice doing. This is something the air force has been doing since World War II, and with great success. The current air force naval mine is the Mk-62 "Quickstrike." This is basically a 227 kg (500 pound) bomb, with a sensor package attached to the rear. There are three different sensor packages, each providing a different set of sensors to detonate the mine. The Mk-62 is a "bottom mine," which is dropped in shallow water and then detects a ship passing above using pressure (of the ship on the water), magnetism (of the metal in the ship's hull), or vibration. The sensor also comes with a computer, to enable the mine to follow certain instructions (like only detonate for ships that meet a certain criteria).

The B-52 and B-1B drop the mines at an altitude of about 300 meters (1,000 feet), while moving at 500-600 kilometers an hour. The mines are usually dropped in known shipping lanes, especially those that serve as approaches to a major port. During World War II, air dropped mines proved devastating to Japanese shipping. Same thing when they were used against North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

The B-52s were first equipped with anti-ship missiles (for testing) in the 1970s, and were given Harpoon missiles as regular equipment in the 1980s. But smart bombs have proven to be nearly as useful and are a lot cheaper than Harpoon. The B-52 was, until recently, the cheapest heavy bomber to operate and favored for maritime patrol. But the B-52 is getting very old and more expensive to maintain. So now the B-1B is the low cost operator and the first aircraft when the air force is called to help out with sea control.


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