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Upgrades to extend B-52 Bomber's lifespan until 2044

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October 9, 2011

Upgrades are planned which will keep the venerable B-52 in service until the 2040s (Photo:...

Upgrades are planned which will keep the venerable B-52 in service until the 2040s (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

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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.

B-52H pilot scans the horizon (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

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.

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
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18 Comments

re; "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."

All the the H model B-52s were "built" by modifying previous models work that included Zero Lifing* the wings so there is plenty of precedent of putting new wings on them.

* Replacing all wearing parts to allow the wear counter to be set back to zero. In this case the design was modified to make the wings stronger.

...................................................................................................................................

The Air Force might have plenty of TF-33s on hand but replacing eight of them with four modern engines of the appropriate thrust would save money in the long run in fuel, and maintenance costs.

Slowburn
10th October, 2011 @ 03:49 am PDT

An amazing aircraft.

It is like maintaining a Sopwith camel up to the year 2000.

Captain Danger
10th October, 2011 @ 06:55 am PDT

good for them! now lets use them in the right places and end these dumb wars!

dapper
10th October, 2011 @ 09:32 am PDT

re; Captain Danger

The problem with that analogy is that ignores the several revolutions in airframe and power plant design between 1917 and 1952. The only thing close to a revolution since 1952 is the emergence of composite materials.

Slowburn
10th October, 2011 @ 10:07 am PDT

Meanwhile,

the black budget aircraft an$wer$ to none.

So,

we'll have aircraft nearly a hundred years old carrying nukes?

Will they be nearly a hundred years old also?

Griffin
10th October, 2011 @ 10:15 am PDT

God bless the BUFF!

Slowburn, I had the same thought on engines.

The one 'stat' that is most fascinating is that the "youngest" BUFF airframe is older than the oldest pilot flying them. Considering the point of the article, the Air Force should research airframe histories because they might find one that is being flown by a grandson of a pilot that flew the same airframe!

In the 80s, I was talking to a friend who worked on the B-2 project. He told me how they thought about "battle damage" repairs to that aircraft's high-tech radar-absorbtive surface. Their conclusion was that it was a "throw away airplane" that if it went to war, it was the "end of the world" so repairing it wasn't a necessity. I countered his argument by reviewing the B-52's history. It was designed as a high-altitude strategic bomber. By the time it was deployed, its mission changed to low-level penetration. Then it became a high-altitude conventional bomber during the Vietnam conflict. Now it has returned to a stratigic role with 'stand-off' weapons. Talk about versatility!

History Nut
10th October, 2011 @ 11:33 am PDT

If everything in the U.S. military was maintained/upgraded like this, the country could save a fortune!

alcalde
10th October, 2011 @ 12:56 pm PDT

BUFF only stands for Big Ugly Fat Fellow among the politically correct. I realize that you have to maintain a sense of decorum here, but you could have used the name most often given it by pilots (one of my cousins) and mechanics (my father), like this Big Ugly Flying F*cker!

Rocky Rawstern
10th October, 2011 @ 03:28 pm PDT

The crews flying the aircraft are uniformly younger than the plane they're flying. The actual point here is that a 10 year war and economic depression has left the USAF with totally obsolete aircraft fit only for bombing the bezeezus out of 3rd world countries.

Rufus Frazier
10th October, 2011 @ 05:20 pm PDT

One of the things I read - is that these aircraft have such a LONG life in them because they do so few hours actually flying. Where as a commercial passenger or freighter HAS to more or less remain running all the time to make ends meet, thus their take off landing cycles and flying hours are huge per year....

But the B52's I recall, have something like 300 hours or less flying time per year - so the entire air frame - with appropriate care, SHOULD last a very long time anyway.

Mr Stiffy
10th October, 2011 @ 07:02 pm PDT

Long live the BUFF, the fearsome ability of a single B52 whether dropping dozens of 500lb bombs or dropping a 20,000lb+ bomb that unique capability will certainly keep it a potent weapon in our arsenal.

Michael Gene
10th October, 2011 @ 07:40 pm PDT

More than a few BUFF crews have been overheard saying that when the last B-2 is flown to Davis-Montham to be scrapped the crew will catch a ride home in a B-52 !

bigal
10th October, 2011 @ 07:53 pm PDT

Nothing says "Shock and Awe" like a grid strike from a B-52. It's hard to even imagine an entire square kilometer being bombed into nothing but dust. I think if we're were bombing the hell out of the Taliban and other terrorists day and night with B-52's instead of those puny drones, there would be a lot less terrorists in the world. ***SUPPORT OUR TROOPS*** !

RESISTANCE
10th October, 2011 @ 08:56 pm PDT

Versatile and over-engineered has its place, apparently.

Brian H
11th October, 2011 @ 04:08 am PDT

re; comment dapper - October 10, 2011 @ 09:32 am PDT

It is always better to fight an enemy on his soil rather than your own. They started it.

Slowburn
11th October, 2011 @ 05:53 am PDT

I'm glad we will be able to reign terror on innocent people, especially the little children. If we don't vaporize them early in life they will just vaporize us later. And those goats! I hate freakin' goats!

Seriously folks, are you familiar with the term "collateral damage"? This is the machine that defines the term, as flyfishsoup so aptly points out.

Ask yourself this. If the tables were turned and some country had the ability to bomb a square kilometer of the USA into dust with impunity, how do you think we would retaliate?

Max Orbit
14th October, 2011 @ 05:59 am PDT

Well at the least it has proven to have been a good return on our defense tax dollar, all the systems we purchase with our taxes should be so long-lived.

Facebook User
4th November, 2011 @ 04:59 pm PDT

Max Orbit: "Seriously folks, are you familiar with the term "collateral damage"? This is the machine that defines the term, as flyfishsoup so aptly points out."

You are thoroughly ignorant of B-52's and their capabilities. You should read about Operation Niagara at the siege of Khe San. The B-52's were limited to bombing only within 2 miles outside "the wire" at the base for fear of short rounds falling on friendly troops. The NVA then figured out that they were home free if they could inside that 2-mile buffer (so to speak) zone and moved in close. The Buff jocks heard about it and said they could nail them within 1/2 mile of the wire. From 7 miles up, are you kidding? Yes, from 7 miles up, we can get 'em and not a scratch on you. They were as good as advertised. Not one bomb fell inside the wire and in one case, an entire 1,800 man regiment was wiped out by one pass from a 3-ship cell.

Even during Linebacker 2 North Vietnam claimed only 1,300 casualties. Considering all the unexploded AAA ordnance shot at the American planes that had to come down somewhere, that is a miraculously low figure. Even back in 1968-72, the B-52's could bomb with pinpoint accuracy.

David Plummer
18th August, 2012 @ 11:28 am PDT
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