How the Air Force Rebuilt the B-52s to Keep Flying Combat Missions
B-52 airframes date as far back as the 1960s, but are still viable and effective in combat.
Key point: More firepower for the B-52 bomber by arming it with new generations of advanced ωɛλρσɳs, to even include nuclear-armed cruise missiles, will vastly increase mission scope and help the aircraft attack targets from safer standoff ranges.
The U.S. Air Force is looking for a special blend of old and new for its future fleet as it looks to both introduce the B-21 Raider over the next few years and continue to upgrade the classic, combat-tested, decades-old B-52 Stratofortress bomber.
This article first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.
“We are going to keep the B-52 for a while, and the B-21 gives you stand-in stealth,” Gen. Kenneth Wilsback, Commander, Pacific Air Forces, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in a video interview.
The B-52 airframes, interestingly, despite emerging as far back as the 1960s, are still viable and able to function effectively in combat, due to some maintenance and sustainment efforts. Added to this, today’s B-52 bomber has been massively overhauled to the point wherein it is almost an entirely different airplane than it was years ago, as either has gotten or will soon get new engines, internal ωɛλρσɳs bays, electronic ωλɾʄλɾɛ systems, intelligence and networking technologies and sensors.
The B-52 bomber’s engine replacement, for example, massively decreases the need for air-to-air refueling by virtue of integrating new, more fuel-efficient engines. The aircraft has also been receiving new low-frequency radio replacements for newer, stronger, better-hardened communications networks. New communications enable B-52 crews with the ability to receive crucial new intelligence information in flight instead of merely attacking predetermined targets.
In the event that new targets emerge or intelligence data changes during the course of a flight, modern radio systems can bring data to bomber crews. The B-52 bomber has also been receiving new radar technology and, as Wilsback explained it, greatly enhanced electronics, including electronic ωλɾʄλɾɛ systems.
Perhaps of greatest significance, the B-52 bomber’s arsenal is being massively revamped with a new internal ωɛλρσɳs bay upgrade, enabling the B-52 bomber to carry up to eight of the newest “J-Series” bombs. The new internal ωɛλρσɳs bay will not only improve the B-52 bomber’s external ωɛλρσɳs bays but also enable the internal carriage of many new Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and other even yet-to-emerge ωɛλρσɳs systems.
The upgrade relies upon a digital interface and a rotary launcher to increase the ωɛλρσɳs payload. The first part of the internal ωɛλρσɳs bay upgrade added an ability to fire a laser-guided JDAM, and subsequent upgrades have been working on adding the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM, JASSM Extended Range and the Miniature Air Launched Decoy. A MALD-J “jammer” variant, which will also be integrated into the B-52 bomber, can be used to jam enemy radar technologies as well.
More firepower for the B-52 bomber by arming it with new generations of advanced ωɛλρσɳs, to even include nuclear-armed cruise missiles, will vastly increase mission scope and help the aircraft attack targets from safer standoff ranges.
“We will fly the B-52 beyond 2040. Despite being our oldest bomber, it has the most life remaining,” Gen. Mark E. Weatherington, Commander, Eighth Air Force, and Commander, Joint-Global Strike Operations Center, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in a video interview earlier this year.