The U.S. Air Force's iconic B-52H bomber has been in service for decades, dropping ordnance everywhere from Vietnam to Iraq. But in a digital world of iPhones, satellite radio, and armed drones, the bomber has remained decidedly old-school, with analog gauges and less brainpower than your average laptop computer.
The Air Force is moving to fix that. It just received the first in a series of B-52s retrofitted with a variety of new electronics designed to boost the plane's brainpower and make it easier for the aircraft to talk to each other and share complicated targeting information. Dozens of other B-52s will get the upgrades in the years to come as part of a $1.1 billion effort known as CONECT, short for Combat Network Communications Technology. Once upgraded, the crew of each Stratofortress, as the B-52 is known, will no longer be forced to write down new targeting coordinates by hand as the information crackles over the radio, the same way such data was shared decades ago.
"As the adversary moves and adjusts and different sensors move and adjust, the B-52 will say, ‘Yep, this target shifted. It moved over here and I know where it is,'" Brig. Gen. Fred Stoss, who oversees upgrades to the plane, told Foreign Policy. "So it can do what it needs to do with a very agile enemy and it can stay plugged in with all the other platforms."
The move highlights the difficult balancing act the Air Force will have to manage in coming years. The B-52, last produced in 1962, is expected to remain in service until 2040, but U.S. military officials are planning for its eventual retirement. The service is expected to launch a contract competition in the fall for a new long-range strike bomber that service officials have said could cost $550 million per plane. Other major modern aircraft acquisition projects like the MV-22 Osprey and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter have fallen years behind schedule, however, raising the question whether the Air Force may be forced to keep the B-52 in service even longer. They've also come in massively over budget, and the price tag for each of the next-generation planes could easily top out at $1 billion or more.
The first upgraded B-52 landed at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on April 21. But dozens more planes are expected to receive the upgrades in coming years, as the Air Force moves to keep the B-52H effective in the future. The new equipment includes software upgrades, radios, and computer servers - plus digital work stations that will replace aging control panels installed with instruments built during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Separately, the Air Force also is planning a massive upgrade to the B-52s bomb bays, reconfiguring them to allow smart weapons can be installed internally, improving fuel efficiency.
The Air Force also is in the midst of upgrading the avionics and electronics to its other bomber, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Doing so will allow the B-2, first fielded in 1989, to remain virtually invisible to enemy radar, an advantage the B-52 does not have. The Air Force has only 20 B-2s, however, so it is still pressing for a new long-range bomber to replace the B-52s.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, who oversees the bombers as chief of Global Strike Command, told Foreign Policy that he wants the new long-range bomber to be operational by 2025, and able to carry nuclear weapons by 2027. But it isn't yet clear whether or not the plane's development will be able to maintain that timeline.
Wilson cited a March 28, 2013, mission in which the Pentagon sent two B-2 bombers on a 38-hour flight from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to South Korea without landing as an example of how the United States shows strength with its bombers even when it isn't dropping ordnance.*
"It's pretty incredible to do
that, and it went all the way up to the White House for approval to do that
mission," Wilson told Foreign Policy. "And the effects: I think it assured
South Korea, Japan and Australia, along with sending a signal to North Korea
that this dual-capable bomber came from the States, flew through here, and then
Air Force photo