DHS uses B-52 to monitor sea lanes

Published 10 July 2009

DHS is using a B-52 to check out suspicious merchant ships approaching North America, often when the ships are still about 2,000 kilometers from the coast

The last B-52 Stratofortress was produced in 1962, which means that the pilots who operate them are all younger than the planes they fly. The B-52 is one of the most durable planes ever built — the U.S.Air Force intends to keep using them until at least 2040, which is nearly eighty years after production ended (many of the 744 B-52s produced are still in service, but the age of the plane has led USAF pilots to describe it as “a bunch of parts in loose formation”).

Now, did you know that DHS has been using a B-52? Yes, the department has been using the plane to check out suspicious merchant ships approaching North America, often when the ships are still about 2,000 kilometers from the coast. Strategy Page reports that the B-52s use their targeting pods to take pictures of the ship, and transmit those back to DHS. A B-52 can do this while taking  part in a training exercise. B-52s have a lot of jobs to do over the oceans.

This is largely because maritime reconnaissance has been revolutionized with the introduction, and combining, of lightweight search radars and targeting pods. With the targeting pod, you can stay high (20,000 feet) 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.

The B-52’s also practice dropping naval mines (this is not part of DHS portfolio). This is something the air force has been doing since the Second World War, and with great success. The current USAF naval mine is the Mk-62 Quickstrike. This is basically a 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 drops the mines at an altitude of about 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 the second World War, air dropped mines proved devastating to Japanese shipping. Same thing with their use against North Vietnam during the Vietnam war.

The B-52s are also equipped to use Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Together, these two systems make the venerable and versatile B-52 a lethal naval weapon.