The Complex

Talk Nerdy to Me: Upgrades Will Allow Aging Bombers to Communicate

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 returned."

*This post originally misstated the location of Whiteman Air Force Base. It is in Missouri. (Return to reading.)

Air Force photo

National Security

New Legislation Would Authorize Military To Find and Kill Benghazi Attackers

In the roughly 19 months since Islamic militants launched deadly attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, federal investigators have promised to never give up the manhunt to find those responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, strikes. But the effort has been treated differently than missions targeting extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries. U.S. officials say they don't have authorization to kill the attackers in Libya because they are not officially connected to al Qaeda, riling those who want justice for the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans killed in Benghazi.

In response, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said Wednesday that he will introduce new legislation that would clear the path for U.S. troops to directly target the Benghazi attackers. Doing so would require a change in the Authorization of Use of Military Force legislation that was passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that allowed the president to target "nations, organizations or persons" that were determined to have had a direct role in the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York or to have harbored those terrorists. The law has been used to justify American strikes in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Some of them have proven controversial, especially when involving airstrikes by armed drones. Human rights groups estimate drone strikes have killed many hundreds of civilians around the world, a charge U.S. officials fervently deny.

Hunter will introduce the new legislation May 7 as the House Armed Services Committee deliberates the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 defense spending bill, said his spokesman, Joe Kasper. But the legislation faces an uphill battle as part of a fight that has grown intensely political. Republicans on Capitol Hill have repeatedly accused the Obama administration of hiding facts about the Benghazi investigation from them, but Senate Democrats have accused the GOP of politicizing a tragedy and pressed their fellow lawmakers to drop the issue while the United States confronts challenges like the current stand-off with Russia.

Kasper said that Hunter's interest in changing the force authorization legislation - commonly referred to as the "AUMF" -- came after Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was pressed about Benghazi during a closed-door Armed Services Committee session last fall. According to transcripts declassified by the Pentagon in January, Dempsey was asked by Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, why the United States had not gone after the attackers if senior U.S. officials knew who they were. Dempsey said the current AUMF didn't allow American forces to hunt down and kill the militants.

"They don't fall under the AUMF authorized by the Congress of the United States," Dempsey said, according to the transcript. "So we would not have the capability to simply find them and kill them either with a remotely-piloted aircraft or with an assault on the ground. Therefore, they will have to be captured and we would when asked provide options to do that."

No known U.S. military operations have been launched in Libya to target the Benghazi attackers. The State Department acknowledged in November that it has offered $10 million to anyone with information that could lead to the capture of those involved in the attacks.

A spokesman for Dempsey, Col. Edward Thomas, declined to comment on Wednesday. But Kasper, Hunter's spokesman, said naysayers shouldn't be quick to discount the new legislation. It's up to Obama to exercise his authority as commander in chief, he said, but it would be wise for the president to at least have the power to act against the Benghazi attackers.

"The administration has a pattern of going out of its way to argue why it can't do something or its hands are tied," Kasper said. "To argue that existing authority doesn't permit action, should it be necessary, is one thing. To argue it's unnecessary or unwanted when there are four dead Americans is another."

The crux of the issue rests largely on how the Benghazi attackers are defined -- a sensitive subject, considering a longstanding debate over whether the White House tried to attribute the coordinated assault on U.S. facilities to an emotional response to the release of an Internet video belittling Islam, rather than terrorism. In a Rose Garden speech a day after the attacks, Obama said "no acts of terror" would ever shake U.S. resolve. But a few days later, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said on Sunday political shows that their best assessment at the time suggested the incident Benghazi began as a response to the viral video, and then was "hijacked" by extremists in the area.

The attackers are now thought to have launched a premeditated attack on the U.S. facilities, and to be members of Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan militia group whose fighters were in Benghazi at the time. Three chapters of the group were added to the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations in January.

On Tuesday, the conservative group Judicial Watch distributed previously unreleased emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that show key White House officials discussing talking points about the investigation in the days afterward. One of them shows Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor, telling other administration officials that the goal of Rice's appearances on the Sunday shows after the Benghazi attacks was to "underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy." He added that Rice should "reinforce the President and Administration's strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges." White House officials have defended the content in the emails, saying it reflects what the administration believed to be the facts at that time.

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