A pair of B-52Hs in flight over the Baltic Sea, October 23, 2019.
Despite their record age, the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress long-range bombers remain the backbone of US strategic aviation. Moreover, they will maintain this status for the next several decades. The current plans of the Air Force provide for the continued operation of such equipment, but this requires taking various measures.
The future of long-range aviation
In late February, Lieutenant General David Naom, US Air Force Assistant Chief of Staff for Planning, spoke at a Congressional hearing. He spoke about the current state of affairs in strategic aviation, and also revealed current plans in this area. According to them, the construction of completely new aircraft does not exclude the continuation of the operation of record-breaking old ones.
In the long term, the US Air Force plans to build a mixed fleet of long-range bombers. Its most important component will continue to be the B-52H, which should be upgraded once again. The production of new Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider aircraft is also planned, which will completely replace the two types of equipment. In the near future, the process of decommissioning the obsolete B-1B will begin, and the unobtrusive B-2A will remain in service for now.
According to D. Naoma, the 76 B-52H aircraft in the Air Force still have a sufficient resource and can continue to serve. Individual aircraft will remain in units until their century. However, this requires timely modernization of equipment. It is necessary to update the radio-electronic equipment, the power plant, etc.
The combat B-52Hs each have eight Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-103 turbojet engines. These products have been developed since the late fifties according to the technologies of that time. A stock of ready-made engines and spare parts was created, which allows to continue to operate until now. Back in the seventies, such motors were recognized as obsolete and in need of replacement. At the same time, the first remotorization project was launched. However, for economic and other reasons, these works were not completed. In the future, new unsuccessful attempts were made to modernize the power plant.
Another similar project was launched last year – the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program. The Air Force has approached General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney with a proposal to develop preliminary designs. In May of this year, a formal request for proposals was sent out, the responses to which are expected by 22 July. The next months will be spent on evaluating projects, and in June next year, the Air Force plans to sign a contract for the supply of serial motors.
While the technical staff works with the Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-103 engines, but in a few years they will have to master new products
Under the terms of the B-52 CERP program, bombers must receive engines with a thrust of at least 8-9 tons and high efficiency rates. It is proposed to retain the four twin-engine nacelles, which will make it possible to do without reworking the airframe. To further reduce the cost of remotorization, it is proposed to use engines of “commercial” types. Participating companies offer three options for motors: one ready-made and two promising modifications of serial products.
The Air Force is set to upgrade all 76 B-52H bombers in service and reserve. This requires more than 600 engines, and a stock of finished products and spare parts will also be created. Design work on CERP will last until 2023-24, after which the production and installation of new motors will begin. Boeing will directly upgrade the aircraft. The modernization of the entire fleet will be completed in 2035.
For several decades of operation, the B-52H managed to change several sets of target equipment and a number of generations of aircraft weapons. Now a new modernization of this kind is being carried out, according to the results of which the aircraft will improve its combat capabilities.
“Layout” of weapons
On April 12, 2019, the Air Force and Boeing signed another contract for the modernization of the B-52H and B-1B armament complex. The work will last exactly 10 years, and its cost is $ 14.3 billion. Official reports mentioned that the project will be carried out according to the Flexible Acquisition & Sustainment Tool. It is about increasing combat stability, expanding combat capabilities and increasing combat readiness.
However, other details were not provided, and the key features of the project remain unknown. The later reports of officials did not generally change the situation, and so far we have to rely only on fragmentary reports, assessments, etc.
Subsonic with hypersound
In the foreseeable future, the US long-range aviation should receive promising models, incl. new classes. Obviously, their operation will not be complete without the B-52H. Moreover, even the development and testing of new products depend on old aircraft.
A year ago, on June 12, 2019, one of the cash B-52Hs became a flying laboratory for preliminary tests of the advanced hypersonic aeroballistic missile AGM-183A ARRW. At that time, it was only about the removal of a prototype, but in the near future the bomber will start launching full-fledged prototypes.
Cruise missiles AGM-86B ALCM on external sling
New information on this matter appeared in the May issue of Air Force Magazine in an interview with the head of the US Strategic Command. General Timothy Ray said that the B-52H military aircraft will undergo modernization, which will ensure the use of hypersonic weapons. Currently, only two bombers used at Edwards AFB for testing have such capabilities. Six more will join them in the near future.
The growth in the number of flying laboratories is associated with the specifics of the assigned test program. It is distinguished by its “aggressiveness”, which requires the attraction of additional aircraft and an increase in the number of personnel. Such processes will continue for approx. 3-5 years before the end of the development work.
Thus, the US Air Force is still not going to give up its oldest combat aircraft and intends to keep them in service for as long as possible. Further modernization programs are proposed for the B-52H Stratofortress, and once again there are assessments of a possible centenary in service.
It is not known whether the B-52H will hold out in service until the fifties and sixties, but the chances of this are quite high. Thus, the B-52 CERP remotorization program will be carried out until 2035 and will significantly extend the service life. And it is unlikely that the Pentagon will decide to abandon the improved economy bombers within 10-15 years after the end of CERP.
The first export flight of the AGM-183A rocket
Another aspect of the CERP program should also be noted. Previous projects of this kind did not give real results, but they spent time and money on them. Another failure in this area will be a serious blow to the image of aircraft manufacturers, the Air Force and long-range aviation. First of all, this will lead to additional difficulties for the Strategic Command in “knocking out” funding for new programs.
With the modernization of the B-52H, in addition to an increase in flight technical and economic characteristics, an increase in combat qualities is expected – due to new on-board equipment and weapons. Despite the subsonic speed, high radar visibility and other disadvantages, the B-52H will remain a convenient and effective platform for weapons, incl. promising hypersonic missiles.
Thanks to this, the B-52H will continue to serve for several more decades. By the end of the twenties, the first production B-21s will join them, and by that time the decommissioning of other bombers will begin. Despite its considerable age, the B-52H has not yet become obsolete – but to maintain the required condition and potential, a variety of efforts and modernization projects are required.