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The Forgotten Nuclear Bomber: Meet the B-58 Convair

Meet the B-58: Observers, weapons developers and military historians might be inclined to wonder why the US Air Force does not have a broader range of bomber platforms, beyond its timeless B-52, aging B1-B and small B-2 fleet. 

Air Force plans to continue upgrades to the B-52 which will likely enable the aircraft to fly for as long as 100 years.

The longevity and combat-proven performance of the B-52, and perhaps most of all  its continued upgradeability, might explain why additional new platforms have either been short lived or simply not produced. 

Enter the B-58

The promise of the B-52 might also be why several potential Cold-War era bombers like the Convair B-58 never wound up seeing the light of day as an operational bomber. Developed in the 1950s as a Cold War bombing platform, the B-58 was singular in its purpose to carry and deliver nuclear weapons.

Later versions of the aircraft added hardpoints for it to carry additional weapons, yet the primary focus of the platform was to hold potential adversaries at risk of nuclear attack. In fact the aircraft never delivered conventional weapons and actually had no bomb bay.

The existence of this kind of nuclear-air threat would seem to have been particularly relevant during the 50s before ICBMs came to exist, and nuclear-armed submarines were just emerging as well.

The air leg of the triad likely proved extremely critical during the 1950s as perhaps the only true nuclear deterrent option preventing a Soviet first strike. 

Why She Failed 

The Convair did exist for a decade or two but ultimately faded due to a number of factors, according to an interesting essay from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1984. The essay explains that the B-58 required more aerial refueling and also presented a greater cost burden than alternatives such as the B-52.

However, the Convair was quite fast as it could reach speeds of Mach 2, and there certainly could be an argument for why a high-speed nuclear bomber would present unique risks to an adversary. An aircraft like the Convair would bring a faster, more elusive nuclear threat possibility to create new dilemmas for an adversary. 

The emergence of Soviet air defenses were reported by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists essay as being a key factor leading to the ultimate retirement or divestiture of the B-58.

This seems to be an important factor, however it seems there would still be a strong argument in favor of the utility and value of a Mach 2 nuclear bomber as it would doubtless prove much more difficult to hit than larger, lower-altitude bombers due to its speed.

The Convair would not linger or stay in a ground radar’s field of regard very long and would therefore still present a significant threat, or at very least add another variable to an overall threat equation.

Much like the prototype XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, the B-58 Convair platform also sought to fly at lower altitudes in response to the emergence of advanced Soviet air defenses. 

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Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.



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