The last of 744 B-52 Stratofortresses, an H-model, rolled out of Boeing’s Wichita facility in 1962. Fifty years later in February, the Pentagon identified the B-52 and the U.S. Air Force’s other strategic bombers as vital weapons for the Pentagon’s ongoing “pivot” towards the western Pacific. “The focus on the Asia-Pacific region places a renewed emphasis on air and naval forces,” the Pentagon announced. “Therefore we maintained the current bomber fleet.”
This endorsement spared the 77-strong Stratofortress fleet from cuts affecting the fighter and mobility forces. With low operating costs compared to other warplanes and an airframe life stretching into the 2040s, the B-52′s future is bright. Planned and projected modifications will build on the bomber’s capaciousness and enormous payload, enhancing its sensor and communications suites and weapons options.
Scott Oathout, Boeing’s B-52 program manager, prefers to use the term “mutation” when describing the Stratofortress’ changing roles and configurations over the years. “You started out with a mix of on-alert [nuclear-armed] aircraft, and then some earlier versions — the B-52D and Gs — were conventional-capable planes. The Hs we have now were primarily nuclear alert aircraft during the ’60s and ’70s.”
“You then have a mutation of technology happening in late ’80s and early ’90s with GPS and new weapons,” Oathout continues. “You had the first glimpse of what we call ‘smart weapons,’ in the category of JDAMs, etc. That started a transformation back into the conventional and precision-type of bombing. You went from what was not necessarily a Close-Air-Support platform at all to a platform that was moving in that direction.”
After extensive modifications, today’s B-52 carries the widest range of weapons of any Air Force warplane — everything from “dumb” gravity bombs to laser- and satellite-guided bombs, ultra-heavy penetrating bombs, cluster bombs, conventional cruise missiles, nuclear bombs and missiles, and even drone decoys and experimental hypersonic rockets. The addition of Litening targeting pods from 2007 on allows B-52 crews to self-designate their own targets, making them largely autonomous during CAS missions.
One important caveat: the B-52 carries guided weapons exclusively on its wing pylons. The bomb bay is compatible only with nuclear and conventional gravity bombs.
The bomber’s robustness underpins its historical adaptability — and opens it up for future modifications. The B-52′s origins in the 1950s, an era of manual, low-precision aerospace design, resulted in an airframe with conservative tolerances and extra margins, according to Jim Kroening, who works under Oathout. “Every aspect of the aircraft — structurally, the capability to hold weapons and avionics, the power — had large margins in it. The wing capacity, the carriage capacity — it was beefed up even more in ’70s from a structural standpoint.”
“The initial designers set us up for success for many, many years,” Oathout says. The latest enhancements fall under the Combat Network Communications Technology, or CONECT program, with first installation in 2009. The Boeing-run CONECT, covered by an eight-year, $12-billion sustainment and modernization contract signed in 2010, adds digital communications infrastructure including satellite comms and a line-of-sight datalink.
“Now we’re getting into network technology,” Oathout says. “You can use and pass data and change targets or missions in flight. That kind of technology is just now being put on jets.”
After CONECT, Oathout says he expect B-52 enhancements to focus on weapons flexibility, so that a single aircraft can attack several different targets with different munitions, all during the same flight. “Flexibility-wise, we’re just now starting a program that puts smart weapons in the bomb bay.”
That initiative, when combined with CONECT, will give the B-52 a true “retasking” capability, mixing and matching weapons and targets over missions lasting 12 hours or more with aerial refueling. Say, a salvo of Joint Air-Surface Standoff Missiles to destroy, at long range, enemy air-defense radars and surface-to-air missiles, with targeting data provided by satellite; then a couple self-designated laser-guided bombs to take out enemy naval vessels; finally, satellite-guided JDAMs, dropped through the clouds onto enemy infantry positions at coordinates relayed by friendly ground forces.
The new, more flexible B-52 will be a “very powerful tool for the Air Force,” Oathout says. Beyond that, he says the Air Force is planning on replacing, by the early 2020s, the bomber’s existing, mechanically-scanned APQ-166 strategic radar with a new, electronically-scanned array. That modification is primarily aimed at enhancing the B-52′s reliability, although the new radar could deliver operational improvements as well, especially in regards to targeting.
After that, the Stratofortress will probably still have another 20 years left in service — meaning another two decades of evolution for a warplane that, over its lifespan, has gone from high-altitude nuclear bomber to a CAS platform to the multi-mission attacker of today.