OUT OF THE BLUE: SENIOR SUPRISE

Perhaps the most interesting B-52 bombing mission of the war involved airplanes that weren't even based there. On February 16, 1991, seven B-52Gs from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, were armed with Top Secret AGM-86C conventionally-armed cruise missiles and sent to fly a mission against Iraq itself. This weapon, going by the classified code name Senior Surprise, was the conventional equivalent of the AGM-86B nuclear tipped cruise missile.

A Barksdale AFB B-52 passes over the beach at low level. Guided by an internal GPS system that flew against a highly detailed, computerized internal map, the AGM-86C could penetrate deep into enemy territory and precisely hit even the smallest targets. Although some of the missiles were caught on film by CNN (including one where commentator noted that the missile came down a street, made a right turn at the intersection, and flew directly into a communications tower), the secrecy surrounding the program was such that it was over a year before the Air Force acknowledged the weapons system or mission.

A pair of Barksdale AFB B-52s. The operation was a complex one that tested the endurance and capabilities of the bomber to the maximum. The Barksdale BUFFs had to refuel several times on the way to Iraq. They crossed the border and launched 35 AGM-86C ALCMs against targets spread across central and southern Iraq. Among the most valued was a power station, a telephone exchange, and other electrical generating facilities, all of which were heavily defended.

Fully 33 of the Senior Surprise missiles hit their targets. The planes then flew back to Barksdale AFB, refuelling several more times on the way home. The mission lasted 35 hours -- by far the longest duration combat mission in the history of aerial warfare. The B-52 had proven itself to be a "Long Rifle" indeed.

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