Mention the "B-52" to most people and they'll think of either an '80s pop group, a bad hair style, or an ancient bomber that's a relic of the Cold War. The name conjures up a vintage warplane featured in grainy footage from the Cuban Missile Crisis which saw it's heyday when Slim Pickens rode an H-bomb from its belly like a bucking bronco in 1964's Dr. Strangelove. What may surprise people is to learn that in the second decade of the 21st century, the B-52 fleet still provides most of the third leg of the American nuclear deterrence triad (the other two being submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles) and that it plays a major part in American conventional warfare strategy. Now the US Defense Department is upgrading the venerable USAF B-52 heavy bomber to allow it to remain a major part of the American arsenal until 2044.

60 year history

First intended as a strategic bomber, the B-52 first flew in 1952. With a wingspan of 185 ft (56 m), maximum takeoff weight of 488,000 lbs (221,000 kg) and range of over 8,000 miles (13,000 km), it was designed to deliver 20 tons of nuclear weapons deep into Soviet territory. Later, it's heavy bomb-carrying capacity made it ideal for dropping conventional weapons during the Vietnam War and later conflicts and the perfection of aerial refueling techniques meant that the only limitation of the B-52 was the endurance of its five-man crew. An example of this was during the Gulf War in 1991 when a B-52 carried out the longest bombing mission in history: 35 hours from Barksdale USAF base in Louisiana to Baghdad and back.

Over the years, the B-52 was found to be a remarkable example of over-engineering and by replacing and upgrading various subsystems as they wore out or became obsolete, the bomber continued to carry out its mission. These upgrades included such things as GPS navigation, targeting pods, electronic countermeasures, heavy adopter beams to carry heavier armaments, and rotating racks allowing it to carry air-launched cruise missiles, just to name a few.

2012 upgrades

In September 2011, North Dakota Senator John Hoeven announced that the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved $88 million for further upgrades to the 76 B-52H bombers that remain out of the total production run of 744 aircraft. These upgrades include the CONECT program, which will provide the B-52H with color displays, data links, advanced satellite links and the ability to talk to USAF systems for mission upgrades and even re-targeting data.

Other upgrades are the installation of the 1760 databus that will allow the B-52H to carry the latest smart weapons as well new stand-off missiles. Also included is a study to replace the aircraft's radar system, which dates back to the 1960s, with a modern one.

According to US Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, Commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, there's still a "lot of life left" in the B-52H and it maintains the capacity to carry out it's duel nuclear/conventional roles "across the conflict spectrum."

Towards 2044

The B-52 has proven a remarkably durable aircraft that has adapted to a changing world. Too slow, heavy and unstealthy to fly into defended airspace, the BUFF's (Big Ugly Fat Fellow) days of standing 24-hour alerts against the outbreak of World War III are long over, but it still maintain its nuclear deterrent role as a platform for the new Long Range Stand-Off missile now under development which will allow the bomber to deliver a punch without going up against modern air defenses.

The U.S. Air Force says that they have "plenty of engines" to replace any of the eight each bomber carries and by upgrading systems as they wear out or go obsolescent, it's believed the B-52H can be kept flying and up to standard. By 2044 however, the majority of B-52 fleet will have logged so many flight hours that the wings will no longer be able to sustain the fatigue after 84 years of service and the airframes will have to be retired.

Of course by then the bomber force may have changed beyond recognition with manned bombers replaced with unmanned and "manned optional" machines that don't require a crew. It will be a world of robot and semi-robot warplanes where the B-52 is the fading echo of an earlier time. When the last B-52 heads for a museum, it will be the end of an era in more ways than one.