The ability of US B-52 Stratofortress bombers to be equipped with long-range cruise missiles represents a game-changing option for overrunning the air defences of an adversary while hitting high-value targets at the same time.
The Stratofortress is a long-range, heavy bomber that can perform a variety of missions, including strategic attack, close-air support, air interdiction, offensive counter-air and maritime operations, according to the Air Force.
The bomber can fly at high subsonic speeds at altitudes reaching 15,240 metres and has an unrefueled combat range in excess of 14,100km.
It can carry precision guided ordnance with worldwide precision navigation, including the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), a low observable standoff air-launched cruise missile built by Lockheed Martin.
The original version of the JASSM has a range of 370km, while the JASSM-ER (Extended Range) has a range of approximately 1,000km, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Missile Defence Project.
Equipped with 432kg warheads, the JASSM and JASSM-ER feature identical, low observable airframes designed to evade enemy air defences.
The missiles are also equipped with an inertial navigation system/Global Positioning System (INS/GPS) unit developed for the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) bombs, an infrared (IR) seeker for terminal guidance and a variety of special packages like electronic jamming.
The JASSM-ER when equipped with a weapons data link can correct course after launch, enabling it to hit moving targets on land or at sea.
Deliveries to the Air Force of another variant of the missile, the JASSM-XR (Extreme Range) with a range of approximately 1,800km, are expected to begin in January 2024.
Each Stratofortress can carry up to 12 JASSM on its wing pylons and another eight inside its bomb bay.
With 20 B-52Hs, or less than half the active fleet of 58, the US Air Force could deliver some 400 JASSM-ER missiles against targets from a maximum stand-off distance of 1,000km.
As part of the US military's effort to counter threats emanating from Iran and other countries in the Middle East, the US Air Force has conducted temporary long-range bomber deployments to the region since 2015.
The latest such deployment took place in March, when a pair of B-52H aircraft flew a multinational patrol mission across the Middle East, US Central Command said in a statement.
Planes from multiple partner nations, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and US Air Force fighter aircraft accompanied the bombers at different points during the flight, it said.
The patrol sought "to deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the US military's commitment to security in the region", the statement said.
In addition to the patrols, the US Air Force in the past has stationed B-52H bombers to better counter Iranian aggression.
In January 2020, the Air Force sent six B-52Hs to the island of Diego Garcia located in the central Indian Ocean, more than 4,800km from the southern edge of Iran, CNN reported.
The B-52s were to be available for operations against Iran if ordered, said an unnamed US official cited by CNN.
"Shortly after our arrival at Diego Garcia, our mission supporting CENTCOM’s regional security objectives focused on the fight in Afghanistan while maintaining a response to Iranian aggression," Maj. Johnathan Radtke said at the conclusion of the deployment at the end of March 2020.
"The B-52's role as a long-range strike platform was proven daily, supporting operations and combatant commands," he said in a statement.
"In terms of capability, no other asset brings an equal weapons load or reliability."