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.”