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Contemporary US strategic bombers: the B-52 Stratofortress, the B-1 Lancer and the B-2 Spirit.

A strategic bomber is a mid-to-long range heavy bomber aircraft designed to drop large amounts of ordnance onto a distant target for the purposes of debilitating the enemy's capacity to wage war. Unlike tactical bombers and ground attack aircraft, which are used in air interdiction operations to attack troops and military equipment, strategic bombers are built to fly into enemy territory to destroy strategic targets (e.g., major military installations, factories, and cities). In addition to strategic bombing, strategic bombers can be used for tactical missions. The United States, Russia, China, and North Korea maintain strategic bombers.[1]

First and Second World Wars

Sikorsky Ilya Muromets was designed by Igor Sikorsky as the first ever airliner, but was turned into a bomber for the Imperial Russian Air Force.

The first strategic bombing efforts took place during World War I (1914–18), initially by Russians with their Sikorsky Ilya Muromets bomber (the first heavy four-engine aircraft), and by the Germans using zeppelins or long-range multi-engine Gotha aircraft. Both reached England on bombing raids by 1915, forcing the British to create extensive defense systems including some of the first anti-aircraft guns that were often used with searchlights to highlight the enemy machines overhead. Late in the war, American fliers under the command of Brig. Gen. William Mitchell were developing multi-aircraft "mass" bombing missions behind German lines, although the Armistice ended full realization of what was being planned.

Study of strategic bombing continued in the interwar years. Many books and articles predicted a fearful prospect for any future war, paced by political fears such as those expressed by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who told the House of Commons early in the 1930s that "the bomber will always get through" no matter what defensive systems were undertaken. It was widely believed by the late 1930s that strategic "terror" bombing of cities in any war would quickly result in devastating losses and might decide a conflict in a matter of days or weeks. But theory far exceeded what most air forces could actually put into the air. Germany focused on short-range tactical bombers. Britain's Royal Air Force began developing four-engine long-range bombers only in the late 1930s. The U.S. Army Air Corps (Army Air Forces as of mid-1941) was severely limited by small budgets in the late 1930s, and only barely saved the Boeing B-17 bomber that would soon be vital. The equally-important B-24 first flew in 1939. Both aircraft would provide the bulk of the American bomber force that made the Allied daylight bombing of Nazi Germany possible in 1943-45.

At the start of World War II, initial so-called "strategic" bombing was carried out by medium bombers, typically twin-engined ones with several gun positions, but only limited bomb-carrying capacity and range. Larger two and four-engined designs were being developed in both Britain and the U.S., however, and these began to replace the smaller aircraft by 1941-42. After American entry into the war late in 1941, the U.S. 8th Air Force began to develop a daylight bombing capacity using improved B-17 and B-24 four-engine aircraft. The RAF concentrated its efforts on night bombing. But neither force was able to develop adequate bombsights or tactics to allow for often-bragged "pinpoint" accuracy. The post-war U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey studies supported the overall notion of strategic bombing, but underlined many of its shortcomings as well. Attempts to create pioneering examples of "smart bombs" resulted in the deployed Azon ordnance, used in the European Theatre and CBI theatre from B-24s.

The only operational strategic bomber with the Luftwaffe in WW II was the troubled Heinkel He 177

Following the untimely death of the top German advocate for strategic bombing, General Walther Wever in early June 1936, the focus of Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe bomber forces, the so-named Kampfgeschwader (bomber wings) became the battlefield support of the Wehrmacht Heer as part of the general Blitzkrieg form of warfare, carried out with both medium bombers such as the Heinkel He 111, and Schnellbombers such as the Junkers Ju 88A. General Wever's support of the Ural bomber project before WW II's start dwindled after his passing, with the only aircraft design that could closely match the Allied bomber force's own aircraft - the early November 1937-origin Heinkel He 177, deployed in its initial form in 1941-42, hampered by a RLM requirement for the He 177A to also perform medium-angle dive bombing, not rescinded until September 1942 - unable to perform either function properly, with a powerplant selection that led to endless problems with engine fires. The March 1942-origin, trans-Atlantic ranged Amerika Bomber program sought to ameliorate the lack of a seriously long-ranged bomber for the Luftwaffe, but resulted with only three Messerschmitt-built and a pair of Junkers-built prototypes ever flown, and no operational "heavy bombers" for strategic use for the Third Reich, outside of the roughly one thousand examples of the He 177 that were built. By the end of the Second World War in 1945, the "heavy" bomber, epitomized by the British Avro Lancaster and American B-29 used in the Pacific Theater, showed what could be accomplished by area bombing of Japan's cities and the often small and dispersed factories within them. Under Major General Curtis LeMay, the U.S. 20th Air Force, based in the Mariana Islands, undertook low-level incendiary bombing missions, results of which were soon measured in the number of square miles destroyed. The air raids on Japan had withered the nation's ability to continue fighting, although the Japanese government resisted every means to surrender, resulting the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The Cold War and its aftermath

During the Cold War, the United States and United Kingdom on one side and the Soviet Union on the other kept strategic bombers ready to take off on short notice as part of the deterrent strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Most strategic bombers of the two superpowers were designed to deliver nuclear weapons. For a time, some squadrons of Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers were kept in the air around the clock, orbiting some distance away from their fail-safe points near the Soviet border.

The Royal Air Force's British-produced "V bombers" were designed and designated to be able to deliver British-made nuclear bombs to targets in European Russia. These bombers could have been able to reach and destroy cities like Kiev or Moscow before American strategic bombers.

The Soviet Union produced hundreds of unlicensed units of the American B-29 Superfortress, which the Soviet Air Force called the Tupolev Tu-4. They later developed the jet powered Tupolev Tu-16 "Badger".

The People's Republic of China produced a version of Tupolev Tu-16 on license from the Soviet Union which they named the Xian H-6, which remains in service today.

During the 1970s France produced its Dassault Mirage IV nuclear-armed bomber for the French Air Force as a part of its independent nuclear strike force: the Force de Frappe utilizing French-made bombers and IRBMs to deliver French-made nuclear bombs. These served in the bomber role through 1996, in reconnaissance through 2005. Nowadays, the French Republic has not limited its strategic armaments to a squadron of four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, with 16 SLBM tubes apiece. Indeed it maintains a considerable force of active stealth supersonic bombers carrying stand-off hypersonic nuclear missiles (the latter having a range of 500 kilometers and carrying the first nuclear device engineered since the nuclear test ban). Some of these are Rafale fighter-bombers capable of refueling others in flight.

More recent strategic bombers such as the Rockwell International B-1B Lancer bomber, the Tupolev Tu-160, and the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bomber incorporate various levels of stealth technology in their designs in an effort to avoid detection, especially by radar networks.

Non-stealth strategic bombers, e.g., the venerable B-52 (last produced in 1962) or the equally venerable Tupolev Tu-95 are still relevant through their carrying of air-launched cruise missiles and other "stand-off" weapons like the JASSM and the JDAM.

USAF B-1 Lancer supersonic strategic bomber

Indeed, it is likely that the USAF's B-52 fleet will, with continual upgrades, outlive its squadrons of B-1Bs. However, the USAF has recently launched a program to study the production of a new strategic bomber to complement the current fleet. It is likely that this bomber would also serve as a replacement for both the B-52 and B-1.

In the case of the Russian Air Force, new Tu-160 strategic bombers are expected to be delivered on a regular basis over the course of the next 10 to 20 years. In addition the current Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers will be periodically updated, as was seen during the 1990s with the Tu-22M bombers.

During the Cold War, strategic bombers were primarily armed with nuclear weapons. However, since the end of the Cold War, bombers originally intended for strategic use have been exclusively employed using non-nuclear, high explosive weapons. During Operation Desert Storm, the military action in Afghanistan, and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, American B-52s and B-1s were employed in mostly tactical roles. During the Soviet-Afghan war in 1979–88, Soviet Air Force Tu-95 carried out several mass air raids in various regions of that country. The North Korean air force has approximately 30 Harbin H-6 bombers in airworthy condition, giving it the ability to strike strategic targets in South Korea or western Japan.

Notable strategic bombers

These were the bombers used in the main or that represented a shift in heavy bomber design. With (Maximum bomb load). In practice, the bomb load carried was dependent on factors such as the distance to target and the type or size of the bombs used.

World War I

World War II

Cold War

Weapons loads can include nuclear-armed missiles as well as aerial bombs

Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

Avro Vulcan

Tupolev Tu-160

Post Cold War

B-2 Spirit


  • United States New Generation Bomber. A future stealth bomber (project) to at least complement the current fleet or supplant a portion or all of the B-52 or even B-1 fleet. A deployment time frame goal of 2018 has been established.[3]
  • United States 2037 Bomber. A stealth, supersonic, long-range, heavy-payload, possibly unmanned strategic bomber (project) to replace the B-52 Stratofortress with a deployment time frame goal of 2037.[4][5]
  • Russia PAK DA

See also


  1. Paul, T. V.; Wirtz, James J.; Fortmann, Michael. Balance of power: theory and practice in the 21st century, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 332. ISBN 0-8047-5017-3
  2. for the Mark III
  3. New Long-Range Bomber On Horizon For 2018
  4. Air Force Assoc. Feb. 2007, p. 11.
  5. Tirpak, John A. "The Bomber Roadmap", Air Force Magazine, June 1999.
  • Brown, Michael E. Flying Blind: The Politics of the U.S. Strategic Bomber Program. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
  • Cross, Robin. The Bombers: The Illustrated Story of Offensive Strategy and Tactics in the Twentieth Century. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
  • Green, William. Famous Bombers of the Second World War. New York: Doubleday, 1959, 1960 (two vols).
  • Green, William. Warplanes of the Third Reich. New York: Doubleday, 1970.
  • Haddow, G. W., and Peter M. Grosz The German Giants: The German R-Planes 1914-1918. London: Putnam, 1969 (2nd ed.)
  • Hastings, Max. Bomber Command. New York: Dial Press, 1979
  • Jones, Lloyd S. U.S. Bombers 1926 to 1980s. Fallbrook, CA: Aero Publishers, 1980 (3rd ed.)
  • Neillands, Robin. The Bomber War: The Allied Offensive Against Nazi Germany. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2001.
  • Robinson, Douglas H. The Zeppelin in Combat: A History of the German Naval Airship Division, 1912-1918. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1994.
  • United States Strategic Bombing Survey. Over-all Report (European War). Washington: Government Printing Office, September 30, 1945.

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