The United States’ iconic B-52 bomber, the old Cold War workhorse that remains in service, is getting a new lease on life.
According to a recent article featured in the Air Force Magazine, the 60-year-old airframes will undergo extensive modifications to keep them flying for at least 30 more years. If realized, America’s B-52s will have been flying for 90+ years, an incredible feat for any airplane, but especially for 1950s and 1960s era strategic nuclear deterrence bombers.
Despite their advanced age and the advent of other faster, stealthier bombers, B-52s remain in service thanks in part to their comparatively low operating costs and a steady stream of upgrades throughout their lives that have targeted engine performance and airframe fatigue. And, thanks to this most recent slew of enhancements, American B-52s won’t retire anytime soon.
Upgrades Here, Improvements There
These most recent planned upgrades fall into four categories: engines, radar, communications, and weapon capacity. To finance these improvements, the U.S. Air Force has already spent $1.4 billion, and is prepared to drop an additional $3.8 billion spread out over the next five years, with even more money potentially ready to be invested into the airframes after the five-year mark.
Once implemented, these upgrades will allow the B-52 platform to outlast several newer airframes, including the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the variable geometry B-1 Lancer. After those two airframes are retired sometime in the 2030s, the Air Force would presumably operate just two bombers, the B-21 Raider stealth bomber and the B-52.
The B-52’s current engines, eight in total, are arranged into four dual-engine pods — two pods on each wing — and are rated at 17,000 pounds of thrust each. The Air Force is looking at four different engine options from General Electric, Rolls Royce, and Pratt & Whitney that offer thrust improvements, are less maintenance-intensive, feature reduced emissions, are quieter, or a combination thereof.
Though these three companies are among the world’s most advanced engine manufacturers, the Air Force requirements are substantial: 30% greater range and better reliability. Ideally, the engines would never have to be removed and would remain mated to the wings for the remainder of the B-52’s lifespan.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Another significant upgrade will install the Combat Network Communications Technology, or CONECT communications upgrade. The upgrade will completely overhaul and replace a number of various styles of band-aid solutions. This included laptop computers, connecting wires, and, strangely enough Post-it notes. B-52s will get new digital color displays and improved onboard processes with greater computational power.
One of the large B-52’s defining features has been its incredibly large payload capacity. So great is the bomber's payload, that groups of B-52s flying sorties together have been compared to the destructive effect of a tactical nuclear weapon. And their capacity is only getting bigger.
B-52’s smart weapon capacity — munitions that include bombs with advanced guidance systems, and stand-off munitions including hypersonic missiles — is set to increase by two-thirds. Once implemented across the B-52 fleet, the increased capacity will be equal to an additional 22 B-52 bombers.
Blip, Blip, Blip
A new electronic radar based on the radars in use with the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet and F-15E Strike Eagle will replace the old analog AN/APQ-166 radar and could change the B-52’s nose shape as well. By using a nearly off-the-shelf solution, development costs are lowered — as will the number of crewmen, from five to four.
These upgrades will be tested on a total of 8 B-52 airframes, including two B-52s that had been sitting in an Arizona boneyard. The plan is to dedicate two airframes to each area targeted for upgrade: engines, radar, bomb bay improvements, and connectivity. By having two airframes dedicated to each upgrade aspect, the Air Force hopes to avoid any testing delays that could arise and implement upgrades as quickly as possible.
It seems your granddad’s bomber might just become your grandkid’s bomber as well.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.