Well, 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.