Celestial Gran Torino
It is difficult to find epithets to describe the B-52 strategic bomber. “The most honored”, “the most deadly”, “the oldest” – these are just words that cannot convey the greatness of a combat vehicle by a tenth of a percent. Perhaps the best definition for the B-52 is the Cold War symbol.
And it doesn’t matter that in the course of the Soviet-American confrontation, the role of aviation as an element of nuclear deterrence was largely offset by intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine ballistic missiles. This did not induce the United States to abandon its “stratospheric fortresses”: the plane was able to prove itself in Vietnam, in the wars in the Persian Gulf, in the operation against Yugoslavia. He fought a “strategist” in Syria and Afghanistan. At the same time, combat aircraft of this type played an important role: it is known that in the first months of Operation Enduring Freedom, various strategic bombers performed only 20% of the total number of sorties, but dropped more than 70% of the total tonnage of aviation ammunition.
But the passage of time cannot be stopped: recall that the last of the B-52s was built back in 1962, which, of course, leaves an imprint on the state of the aircraft fleet. Strictly speaking, the end of the Cold War in general could be the end of American strategic aviation in the usual sense of the term. If in 1989 the United States had more than 400 bombers, then in the foreseeable future there may be no more than 100 of them. Recall that the Americans often express dissatisfaction with the “problem” B-1B, pointing to a relatively low level of combat readiness (although plans to equip the B-1 hypersonic weapons can affect the decommissioning of these vehicles). In recent years, they also talked about the write-off of a few “invisible” B-2: they are too expensive.
All this may mean that, against the background of difficulties with the development of the new B-21, the veteran B-52 may become not just the main, but generally the only American strategic bomber: now, we recall, the Americans have 76 such machines out of 744 built over the years. … By the way, the United States is not alone in this, so to speak. The main Russian strategic bomber, the Tu-95, like the B-52, made its maiden flight in 1952. The Tu-160 is newer, but there are only 16 of them in service, and it is far from a fact that this number will increase significantly in the next ten years.
Without heart attack and paralysis
In general, the B-52 has already been upgraded to a level that allows it, both tactically and strategically, to meet the requirements of the 21st century, which cannot be said about some other machines of this type. One of the most notable improvements is the ability to use the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, which makes the plane a real “hunter” for ground targets. This is also facilitated by the economical JDAM satellite-guided bombs. Well, in the role of the “long arm” (at least at the tactical level) is the new AGM-158 JASSM missile – their aircraft can take up to 12 pieces.
But even this is no longer enough, at least for the plane to be able to overcome the desired milestone of 100 years. Let us remind you that this is exactly how much the Americans want to operate the machines: however, not “yet”, but from the moment they were put into operation. The new version of the aircraft may be called the B-52J. “So far, this is just a sketch, potential future efforts,” Colonel Lance Reynolds, B-1 and B-52 Lifecycle Management Program Manager, said earlier.
Power point. The most important improvement is the engines. In fact, it is around them that the whole “round dance” takes place. Recall that the B-52H has eight very successful Pratt & Whitney TF33-P / 103 turbojet engines for their time – the same ones that were installed in the 60s. They provide a cruising speed and combat radius on par with newer vehicles of this type. On the other hand, the use of eight engines within one platform today can hardly be called a modern solution, and the engines themselves are morally outdated.
Not surprisingly, back in 1996, a project was initiated to re-equip the B-52 with four Rolls Royce RB211 534E-4 engines. This initiative was never implemented, but this is far from the end of the story. On May 19, 2020, the United States Air Force issued a request for proposals for a new competition. As it became known earlier, GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce will take part in the tender for the supply of 608 engines. GE can choose between the CF34 or Passport engine (or both). P&W offers the PW800 and Rolls-Royce the F130.
Some important steps have already been taken. In September last year, it became known that the American division of British Rolls-Royce had carried out the first tests of the F130 turbofan engine for the B-52. This engine was developed from the BR725, which in turn is a variant of the Rolls-Royce BR700. “The F130 engine family we are offering for powertrain upgrades is already a product primarily made in the United States and we are going to take the final step in ensuring that it is assembled and tested in the United States if the program goes further,” Tom said earlier. Hartmann, Rolls-Royce senior vice president of customer service.
The F130 engine has comparable thrust to the TF33: it is noteworthy that, despite initial plans to reduce the number of engines, the option of direct replacement (at least until recently) remained the preferred option. At the same time, the range of the aircraft should still increase by about 20-40%: now, we recall, the combat radius of the aircraft is 7,200 kilometers, which is also quite enough to carry out the bulk of combat missions.
Armament and avionics. There is even less certainty when it comes to other aspects of modernization, but it is clear that the half-hearted measures will not suit the US Air Force. Let us remind you that B-52 pilots perform tasks, guided by the scattering of dials on the dashboard: in front of them, like many years ago, there are only two small multifunctional displays that do not meet the requirements of their time. Given that various pilots of the US Air Force have long and persistently demanded modern “glass cockpits”, which would include large displays on which basic information would be displayed.
They also criticize the outdated B-52 ejection system (two out of five pilots are thrown down in the event of an accident), and besides, the placement of the aiming container under the right wing is not entirely successful, which reduces the operator’s view. Most likely, the new version of the “strategist” will be devoid of all these difficulties.
The updated version, of course, will be able to use new weapons. “The modernized B-52 will receive a new nuclear cruise missile. The development contract is still estimated at $ 250 million. The Pentagon calls the new missile a fundamentally new weapon system and claims that these new nuclear missiles will have an accuracy of 3-5 m, and a flight range of at least 3-3.5 thousand km “, – said in 2019 the head of the Bureau of Military-Political Analysis Alexander Mikhailov.
By the way, last year we also saw the potentially most dangerous weapon of the B-52 – the ARRW hypersonic missile or AGM-183A: then the model of this product was suspended under the wing of the aircraft. AGM-183A is a solid-propellant aeroballistic missile with a warhead, the role of which is played by a detachable hypersonic warhead with a Tactical Boost Glide rocket engine. According to unofficial data, the block speed can reach Mach 20.
There is almost no doubt that the missile will be brought to a combat-ready state: too much time and effort has been invested in it. There remains only one important question: how many units can one modernized Stratofortress carry? We, of course, will not be able to answer it now, but as it became known recently, the B-1B will be able to take up to 31 ARRW. Probably, the B-52 will be able to carry the same number of missiles or slightly less.