Everything old is new again. There are few things under the sun that are entirely new, yet in the never-ending quest of some narcissists for a sense of immortality and personal enrichment, there is always someone out there with what he thinks is a better mousetrap. Today, as Congress considers ways to rein in spending at the Defense Department, it’s worth noting that some weapons systems have proved their utility over the years, and, with modernization, just keep getting better.
This brings up two interesting cases in point:
First, the B-52, perhaps the most famous aircraft in American history, has served the U.S. Air Force as the centerpiece of our manned strategic bomber force for nearly 60 years.
Throughout its history, the B-52 has performed countless missions, from conducting surveillance to launching any number of weapons in the U.S. military inventory. During Operation Desert Storm, B-52s delivered 40 percent of all the weapons dropped by coalition forces, according to the U.S. Air Force.
The first B-52 rolled off production lines in 1951, a few years before the commercial introduction of the color television and the end of school segregation. Yet today, with ongoing modifications, the B-52 is state-of-the-art even though the entire space age has elapsed since its inception.
While there always will be speculation about replacing the B-52, continued U.S. investment in the aircraft has kept it relevant and capable of meeting contemporary challenges. Ongoing technological upgrades, such as installing GPS and retrofitting the aircraft to carry heavier munitions, will enable the B-52 to remain in service until 2040. Those investments have proved to be taxpayer money well spent.
Joining the venerable B-52 is the Patriot missile system. First deployed in the 1980s but still making headlines today, the Patriot is also the product of American innovation, and serves as a powerful example of a classic weapon system that has improved with modernization.
Today’s version of this missile system is not your father’s Patriot. First deployed with stunning success in Israel during the Gulf War of 1991, followed by a perfect intercept record in Operation Iraqi Freedom a decade ago, the Patriot missile system has undergone constant upgrades and enhancements to keep up with the advancement of modern technology.
The result has been improved operational capabilities and significantly reduced operating costs. Patriot’s latest upgrade is a next-generation PAC-3 MSE interceptor, which includes a successful ballistic missile intercept at the highest altitude ever achieved.
Patriot missile modernization is part of a continuous technology program that shares the costs of engineering services and upgrades of new capabilities with Patriot’s partner nations. Patriot is the only combat-proven air and missile defense system deployed in 12 countries, including five NATO nations, and is on the daily front line as a deterrent from aggressor nations.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Turkey recently weighed its options to protect itself from the continuing instability emanating from neighboring Syria, it requested the Patriot. Earlier this month, NATO approved Turkey’s request, sending Patriot missile batteries to Turkey’s borders to defend against escalating chemical weapon threats.
A total of six batteries of Patriot missiles will be headed from Patriot partners to support the Turks — two each from Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, a move that was just announced last week. This is in addition to the battery of recently deployed Patriots sent into Haifa in northern Israel as part of the current defense shield against Hamas.
Turkey’s request confirms what the United States and our allies have known for years: Patriot works, period. That separates Patriot from other systems that have been fueled by promises, not practice.
It’s nice to see that some things in life can remain constant. That is due in part to the genius behind the creation of a few venerable classic weapons, such as the B-52 and the Patriot missile system, still serving valiantly in our defense.
Phillip Schreier, a military historian and author, served as a war correspondent in Afghanistan with the 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade.