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Boeing to extend B-52 life span by increasing smart weapon capacity by half


November 10, 2013

The upgrade allows the B-52 to carry 50 percent more smart weapons (Image: USAF)

The upgrade allows the B-52 to carry 50 percent more smart weapons (Image: USAF)

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The B-52 heavy bomber is a bit like the Queen of England – sometimes it seems as though both of them are going to go on forever. Last week, Boeing announced a new program to extend the life of the US Air Force B-52 fleet by expanding its capacity to carry smart weapons by 50 percent as part of a new US$24.6 million contract.

The B-52 is one of aviation's great success stories. Built during the first decade of the Cold War to ward off a potential Soviet attack, it can fly at altitudes up to 50,000 ft (15,000 m) at 650 mph (1,046 km) for over 8,800 miles (14,160 km) without refueling while carrying 70,000 lb (32,000 kg) of mixed ordinance from "dumb" iron bombs to nuclear weapons.

The longest serving bomber in the US inventory, the B-52 was so well built that it's amazing that the crews that fly it today could be the grandchildren of the men who originally flew it in the 1950's.

However, the question remains, how do you keep a bomber up to date that was built in the days when a computer the equivalent of today's smartphone would weigh more than the entire plane itself?

The solution has been to upgrade the mechanics, electronics, and weapons systems of the venerable plane for as long as its airframe and wings remain sound, which should be until 2044.

Under the new US Air Force contract, Boeing will develop a modification to the B-52's existing rotary weapon launchers. This will allow the bomber to carry a full complement of smart weapons in its bomb bay instead of having to carry some on hard points on the plane's wings, which allows for 50 percent greater capacity. With all weapons carried internally, this will reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency in flight. In addition, by modifying the rotary launchers it is possible for the B-52 to carry out more of a mix-and-match inventory with a mixture of weapons to suit particular missions.

This is combined with the earlier CONECT system upgrade, which is a new digital network that allows the computers aboard the B-52 to detect what sort of weapons are connected to its hard points and in its weapons bay, and adapt itself accordingly. With this new weapon's bay upgrade, the CONECT system's high speed network allows the B-52 to modify its mission and weapon targeting in flight.

Under the agreement, Boeing will deliver three prototype launchers for testing and evaluation by March 2016. Initially, the upgraded system will carry 24 500-lb Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) or 20 2,000-lb JDAMs. If this is successful, the system will add the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), its extended range variant (JASSM-ER), the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) and its jammer variant (MALD/J).

“When you combine that ability with the extremely long flying time of the B-52, you have an efficient and versatile weapon system that is very valuable to warfighters on the ground,” says Scot Oathout, B-52 program director. “This weapons capacity expansion joins the CONECT program, a comprehensive communication upgrade currently being installed on the aircraft, to give the warfighter even more flexibility.”

Source: Boeing

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

The Buff's biggest problem is low survivability in contested airspace. In the end I expect that her replacement will be a converted transports.


Probably the last weapons system that we actually got our moneys worth out of is the B-52, although I bet the control yoke is probably the only original item on the aircraft ;)

Rusty Harris

All this weaponry, and no-one to bomb. Iran, perhaps? Hang on, they have anti-aircraft missiles. Damn!

This stuff only works against the Taliban, who have no defense whatsoever. Or, maybe it doesn't.

How come the B52 has such a long fatigue life? All the British V Bombers were grounded years ago. Perhaps American aluminum is better than British aluminium.


If we made a comparable airframe out of modern materials, with modern engines, I bet we could increase the range/fuel economy considerably. It's probably not worth doing that just for saturation bombing, though.

The B-52 is that type of tool that still gets used once on Sunday, and is worth keeping around for just that one task.

For anything going on in contested airspace, we use fighter/bombers like the F-18 and the F-16.

Jon A.

Rusty, the yoke was replaced a while back, so the only thing left is the airframe and wings.

Nelson Chick

US should work on a heavy stealth bomber, with greater range, storage and stealth and sell these off or convert as cargo aircraft. If it's obsolete in today's day and age then that should be accepted.

Dawar Saify

So cool the B-52's keep going strong. I always found the plane to be strangely pretty as it with so many things where form follows function.

I wonder if watching Dr. Strangelove is part of mandatory flight training for the pilots :-)


@ windykites1

When the B-52s were upgraded to the H model The wings were Zero Lifed and they have spent most of the time since then on the ground.

About 60% of the airplane date back to their first time down the assembly line. just as an aside the airframe flexes so much that only the pitot tubes and electronic warfare pods have deicing equipment, the rest of the plane flakes off the ice as it forms.


"US should work on a heavy stealth bomber, with greater range, storage and stealth and sell these off or convert as cargo aircraft. If it's obsolete in today's day and age then that should be accepted."

Already done and did. First there was the XB-70, but only two were built and one was accidentally run into by another plane and crashed.

The follow up is the B-1B. 100 were built and for some reason they just don't get the press coverage the old B-52 does.

Neither is as stealthy as the B-2, but that doesn't have the payload capacity of the B-52 or B-1B. The B-2 is a heavy strategic bomber, designed from the start for guided bombs.

The B-2 is a flying wing design of almost exactly the dimensions of Northrup's XB-49 and YB-49. Jack Northrup lived to see his ideas vindicated when he was shown a scale model of the B-2 and the production contract before he died. Northrup lost the contract to the B-52 when during a demonstration flight all the engines ran out of oil and the flying wing crashed, despite the oil tanks having been filled the night before. Had to be sabotage by Convair or someone in the military who just didn't like the idea of a flying wing. Nothing new there, "old school" military brass tried to stop adoption of the M-16 rifle by sabotaging the test prototypes during acceptance trials, and they've done the same many other times, including choosing the the worst performing "universal camoflage" pattern for the uniforms the Army has been stuck with the past decade instead of the obviously superior MultiCam pattern.

The F-117 "stealth fighter" was not a fighter. It was a light strategic bomber, though it may have been possible to carry missiles in its internal weapons bay.

Gregg Eshelman

@ Gregg Eshelman

The B-1 does not get the press because of the low availability of the planes for missions. Every time they plan a B-1 flight they prepare 2 planes. The idiots at Rockwell like fragile overcomplicated designs the space shuttle had the same problem.

The B-49 project was canceled right after one overflew a busy FAA control center without being seen even when they reviewed the tapes. Radar has gotten better since then.

The F-117 was a tactical bomber.


B2 is also more than 20 years old. A massive heavy stealth bomber which can transport equivalent of 12 tanks like abrams to a battlefield area. That is heavy build up in short time, example 6 hours for build up of 48 tanks, 100 artillery, 200 support vehicles half way across the globe. And military personnel on smaller higher speed stealth aircraft. Focus on rapid deployment from continental US.

Dawar Saify

The B-52 doesn't have to worry about survivability they aren't used until air superiority is achieved and the anti-aircraft missiles are destroyed.

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