Not your father’s B-52

b52dtmo.jpgWell, maybe it is, actually. But the Stratofortress continues to fly high, more than five decades after its introduction, thanks to continual upgrades. The latest is a new $8.6 million avionics system.

A B-52 from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., was launched with Boeing’s prototype integrated weapons interface unit that allowed the bomber to release, for the first time, eight 2,000 pound joint-direct attack munitions from the internal bomb bay. The test took place at the Utah Test and Training Range.

The unit was developed by Boeing during a two-year sustainment program aimed at replacing the four aging line replaceable units currently carried in the B-52. The June 14 demonstration showed that the prototype interface unit, when fully developed and qualified for production, is capable of replacing the existing replaceable units and as a result, extending the combat role of the B-52.

The test sortie also demonstrated the B-52’s capability to increase the number of JDAM weapons the B-52 can carry from 12 to 20, an increase of 60 percent. There is no existing program to formally pursue this capability, however, the demonstration allowed proof of the concept and provides future risk reduction.

These planes remain workhorses, and there’s no end in sight. The newer B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers, while both have served well, are not available in the numbers that today’s wars require while simultaneously maintaining a strong deterrent force. And since America’s current crop of enemies are without air forces or even modern air defense systems, the big lumbering B-52s (affectionately called BUFF for “Big Ugly Fat, um, Fellow”) can continue to make great contributions.

That’s just as well, since the operating cost of the newer planes and the per-unit price tag means that there won’t be more rolling off the assembly line any time soon. The next heavy bomber isn’t scheduled to be introduced until around 2040.

The current fleet of heavy bombers is expected to serve until the middle of the century, with the B-52s around until the 2030s. At peace, that might have been reachable. But the war has already put a heavy load on the planes and to count on them to hold up for fifty more years is probably a bit over-optimistic. The B-52s, being both the oldest and currently the most-used, will obviously wear out first. Their upper wing surface is the limiting factor.

In related news, the Royal Air Force is looking at converting some of its Nimrod reconnaissance planes into long-range bombers. This would give Britain the capability to send missile-armed planes to trouble spots far more quickly than ships could be deployed. The RAF hasn’t had a long-range bomber since the Vulcan was retired shortly after the Falklands War in the early 1980s.

These old, slow planes keep chugging along. And they’ll continue to do so as long as they don’t have to go up against a top-line opponent. Cruise missiles, advanced electronics, and GPS-guided bombs have made deadly weapons out of old airframes. Now if we can just keep them in the air.

NOTE: This has been cross-posted at DefenseTech, where I will be subbing for the vacationing Noah Shachtman next week along with Jason the Armchair Generalist. If that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is.


  1. Just a couple of food for thought points. On the next heavy bomber not be slated to comming out till 2040. That may be a tad optimistic, as there is no plans for a future bomber or any programs to even investigate the matter. With respect to age of the fleet. It is more likely that the B-52 will outlive the B1 & B2 bombers. The B1 bomber’s swing wing design makes the plane more vulnerable to wing stresses. The F-111 had wing issues for most of its carreer. The larger B1 with its heavier load bearing along with it proven track record of being grounded due to defects, tend to make me think that it may not be around as long as many would think. The B2, with its high maintence cost and deployablity issues will catch up with it. As technology progresses, better stealth materials and coatings will be developed for unmanned drones that will be able to do the B2’s key role: penitrating high threat environments. With the unmanned drones being used in the high threat environments, the cost vs benefit of the B2 will get progressively worse. Ironically, the B-52, a plane that was designed over a weekend, will ultimately outlive its successors. It’s unique ability to handle any weapon that the airforce has in the arsenal, comparitive low operating costs, and large size to allow easy upgrades, makes the B-52 the unreplaceable bomber. With respect to the JDAM modification. As I understand it, once the small diameter bomb is online, the B-52 will be upgraded to carry a load 320 bombs. This upgrade should include the ability to hand multiple JDAM’s. That said, the one aspect the B-52 needs upgrading, is the engine upgrades. Boeing has offered at various times to replace the 8 current engines with 4 commericial ject engines. Replacing the engines would increase the B-52, range, payload, and reduce it fuel costs.

  2. Boeing has offered at various times to replace the 8 current engines with 4 commericial ject engines.’ GOOD POINT James The B-52D current powerplant setup with 8 Pratt & Whitney J57 (rated at 12,100 lbs thrust each) could be upgraded to 4 Pratt & Whitnet 4098 series (98,000 lbs thrust each). Unfortunately, the newer engines would probably tear the BUFF’s wings off and leave the fusilage on the tarmac. By the way speaking of turbojet engines check out this site IT’S HOT!:

  3. BH: I’m totally with you on the commercial airliner JDAM carrier. As for the tanker, nothing really new, but I’m gathering up some news for an update post within the next couple of days. In fact, that was going to be my ‘test’ post for DefenseTech instead of this B-52 thing, but I wanted to gather more first. Whenever I say ‘within a couple of days’, it’s the kiss of death. Expect something by October at the latest…

  4. Hmm, the problem with converting airliners to military aircraft is that it makes it hard to tell commercial airliners from bombers. I don’t think I have to elaborate on why that might be a problem.

  5. BH: On the 747 concept. You should keep an eye on the 747 fire tanker and see if the fire service approves it and the FAA says that it is safe. If a 747 makes it as a fire tanker, I would say that it has a shot at being a bomber. That said, I would rate the chances of a bomber variant of the 747 to be near zero. As a tanker? the high speed of the 747 and it adaptability are strong points in its favor. However, the air force is showing a predisposition for smaller planes. The dreamliner? tanker or bomber? no way. The dreamliner is a specialized commercial craft. I seriously doubt that the design of the dreamliner would allow for a military conversion. 747 fire tanker link

  6. How come the suggestions are to convert civilian airliners to bombers, rather than military transports? Why 747s instead of C-17s?

  7. 1. Because the military transports are already used as bombers. Remember the Daisy Cutter or the MOAB. 2. I think the C-17 would make a great gun ship, but the nature of its design would make it hard to be a traditional bombay bomber. 3. I think a lot of the ideas, are being offered with the thought that the civilian planes are cheap and are available. Using the civilian planes would be a net plus to the air force. Where as the C-17, is already over used and we need the C-17 more as a transport then as a bomber. So, modifing the C-17 to be a bomber would be like turning your shoes into a belt to hold up your pants. So yes your pants stay up, but now you can’t walk.