When the United States wanted to send a message to North Korea after its January nuclear test, it dispatched a nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortress to fly low over the South Korean peninsula.
That was pure symbolism. There was no way to tell if the Cold War era bomber was actually armed, with either conventional weapons, or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Such was not the case Monday in Iraq, when one of those aging B-52s used satellite-guided joint direct attack munitions to take out an Islamic State weapons storage facility in Northern Iraq. That was combat, pure and simple.
In briefing reporters at the Pentagon on the mission, Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, used the words "legendary" and "iconic" to describe the venerable warbird. They were sent to replace the B-1B Lancers, which were doing much of the heavy lifting in the air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for the past year, and needed maintenance.
While the B-52 remains a tangible and impressive symbol of America's superpower status, Warren downplayed the idea the deployment was intended to convey any particular message. "Obviously, the B-52 does have a long and very illustrious history. So we do like to talk about it. But really, it's simply another platform from which we can launch our precision strikes," he said.
But as impressive as the B-52 is, with its massive wingspan, long range and ability to carry up to 70,000 pounds of ordinance, it's still a relic of a bygone era, and also a symbol of America's aging Air Force, which includes four fleets of air planes over half-a-century old.
Today's H-model B-52s were designed in the 1950s, and built in the early 1960s. That makes them considerably older than the pilots who fly them. The average age of the remaining fleet of 76 aircraft is 55 years, but some are over 50.
"The idea that we would run a Formula One or a NASCAR race with a car built in 1962 is ridiculous, but we're going to war with airplanes built in 1962. We have got to modernize the Air Force. It's just an imperative," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told Congress last year.
The plane also provides go-to stats on the campaign trail for candidates calling to rebuild the military.
"We've decimated our military," Mike Huckabee said during one of the GOP debates last year. "We're flying B-52s. The most recent one that was put in service was November of 1962. A lot of the B-52s we're flying ... most of them are older than me. And that's pretty scary."
But they don't design planes like they used to, and the B-52 has turned out to be an indefatigable workhorse, on course to keep flying for another 25 years or more, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal group.
In fact, Aboulafia says the B-52 is likely to outlast the B-1, which like the B-52 lacks stealth, but also can't carry as many bombs and missiles as the massive Stratofortress. When the new long-range batwing B-21 begins production in the next decade, Aboulafia says the 1980s era B-1 will likely be retired, while the B-52s will remain in service for 80 years or more.
"If you are looking for a broader message about the aerospace industrial base, the B-52 and the B-21 tell it well, which is we reach these aeronautical plateaus, we stay on them for a long time, and all the progress takes place with the onboard systems and sensors," Aboulafia told the Examiner.
Aboulafia said the B-52's advantages, which include its long range and ability to carry heavy payloads, may not be all that necessary in Iraq and Syria. But on the other hand, given that there are no anti-aircraft missiles capable of shooting it down, why not send it in?
"People are drawing conclusions about air power in a conflict where there are really no air defenses of any kind to speak of," he says. "In other words, in the case of the B-52, there's absolutely no reason not to use a long-range, high-capacity bomb truck because nobody has the ability to defend against it."