The USAF has been modernizing the iconic B-52 bomber for some time, but now a key process is underway: changing its huge engines so that it continues to fly, at least until 2050
In the world of aviation and specifically in the military, there are many aircraft that have overcome the barrier of fame, although only a few have become true icons. But there is a very particular one that is called to break all the existing records in terms of operability and long career. It is none other than the mythical B-52. With 66 years of uninterrupted active duty, having been involved in multiple conflicts and still fully effective, the USAF plans to modernize its old bomber fleet by extending it to 2050 or even more. This would be a fact never achieved in the history of aviation: that an aircraft model reaches 100 years of service.
With 76 copies of the B-52H still active, the latest version of the sky giant, the old bomber remains one of the mainstays of the US Air Force. Since its first flight in 1952 and its entry into service in 1955, the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow) has undergone many modifications and modernizations that have kept it active for so many years. Thus, from a strategic nuclear bomber during the Cold War, it became a conventional bomber during the Vietnam conflict and a “multi-purpose” bomber during a variety of modern conflicts.
The keys are in its size, which allows modifications with relative simplicity, its proven and effective design and its profitability, compared to other much more sophisticated and expensive current bombers, such as the B-1 and especially the B-2. But now, this process enters a key phase: the renewal of its powerful engines, a multi-million dollar project for which three large multinationals compete and that will mark a before and after in the new life of the B-52 until, at least, 2050.
The bomber’s longer life sparks controversy among those who advocate sophisticated, state-of-the-art equipment and those who trust the veteran and reliable team that has proven its success. Both seem to be right and the proof that the seconds are also correct we have it not only in the B-52 itself, also in highly successful aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules and AC-130, the A-10 Thunderbolt II and even the F-15, of which a new and modernized variant has also been developed.
One of the most notorious and necessary changes in the modernization of the B-52 is that of its radar, which covers a specific sub-program. In this chapter, the current AN / APQ-166 equipment, a system that has not been updated since 1980, will be exchanged for a modern, latest-generation AESA radar that must outperform the APG-83 (which equips the latest versions of the F-16. ) and that it will be based on the new Raytheon’s APG-79 and APG-82. With this upgrade, the B-52 will be able to detect targets at a greater distance, will be able to simultaneously attack and will allow it to use more sophisticated weapons.
Electronics improvements don’t end here. The new B-52, within the subprogram called “CONECT” (Combat Network Communications Technology), will receive the Link 16 communications system, standard in NATO and that, among other things, will allow real-time interconnection with other aircraft, centers command, ground observers, intelligence via satellites, etc. The system operators console, located on the lower deck just below and behind the cockpit, will also be upgraded by installing LCD multifunction displays and upgraded computers (replacing the current IBM AP-101) and performing a deep rewire that includes new ultra capacity systems with self-diagnosis.
Another important change that could affect its great capabilities in electronic warfare. One of the strongest rumors is that the United States could dedicate several copies exclusively to electronic warfare, developing a kind of “superjammer”, an enormous aircraft, with great autonomy and weapons-carrying capacity, packed with equipment of powerful countermeasures that, from a distance, could blind enemy radars and systems.
The arms chapter is a separate matter. Initially, it already has the ability to launch almost all of USAF’s existing arsenal, but it is already working on the weapons of the future. In this sense, the new AGM-183A missile, known as ARRW (Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon), has already been tested on a B-52. It is the prototype of a hypersonic device on which it is speculated that it could reach Mach 20 speed. It would also be prepared to use the new LRSO (Long Range Standoff weapon) in development, a weapon that would replace the current AGM-86B ALCM. It is a long-range missile (its provisional name is YAGM-180A) with the capacity to carry a nuclear warhead and pierce through enemy defenses on their attack route to strategic targets.
A new ‘heart’
Of all the applets that affect these upgrades, there is one that is key, and that is replacing its old (and thirsty) Pratt & Whitney JT3D engines. For this section, to which another subprogram is dedicated, last year a bid was opened that has just recently concluded. The objective of the USAF is to change the engines of the entire B-52 fleet, an enormous scope since we are talking about 608 power plants (each B-52 has 8 propellers), for reliable and above all economic models, which come from the civilian field.
Three companies have chosen this bid: Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC), General Electric (G&E) and Rolls Royce (RR). All have submitted very interesting offers that the USAF will now have to analyze and decide on. On paper, the best positioned are P&WC and G&E. The first is the manufacturer of the current engines and boasts of it: “We have been driving the B-52 for 60 years and we know perfectly what it needs”, is the phrase that accompanies the offer of P&W, which offers its new PW800 engine, which it is already in service on commercial aircraft such as the Gulf Stream 500/600 series. It is a turbofan with up to 20,000 pounds of thrust that shares many mechanical elements with other engines from the same manufacturer.
General Electric, a North American manufacturer, has bet very heavily on this contest and offers two very interesting proposals: the CF34-10, an engine that affects reliability by being based on engines already tested and in service, with a thrust of 20,000 pounds and a highly advanced engine with digital control and highly optimized consumption. G&E’s great asset is its previous experience in “re-powering” other aircraft in the USAF fleet. Thus, the KC-135R tanker engine replacement programs were equipped with propellers, changing its J57 / TF33 to CFM56, the C-5M Galaxy transport, changing its TF39 to CF6-80C2 and the U-2S spy plane, in which its J75 was replaced by the new F118.
Finally, the British Rolls Royce is offering its F130 engine, which is already being used in the BACN C-37 and E-11 aircraft, so it is committed to reliability. The F130 is based on the Rolls Royce BR700 family of jet engines, which achieve thrust ranges of up to 22,000 pounds and which the manufacturer claims have performed more than 25 million flight hours in civil and military aircraft. The weak point of this offer may lie in the fact that, if successful, the engines will only be assembled at its Indianapolis plant, compared to competitors such as G&E, whose workload will remain intact in the United States.
Aside from the figures and technical issues, this contest has a very interesting point and that is that the USAF has made a requirement for engines that do not need any entity revision throughout their useful life and that, if it occurs, must be supported by the maker. In other words, the USAF is not only buying the engine but the availability of the plane. An alternative that is increasingly seen in military contracts, with a large part of the service falling on civilian companies.
We are therefore facing important changes for the aircraft, so much so that the USAF shuffles that, after modernization, the reborn aircraft are designated as a new version: it would be the B-52J. With these changes, the old warrior will remain an asset of great importance. With its new engines, its already interesting operating costs per ton transported will be reduced. In addition, with its high fuel capacity and lower consumption, its autonomy will be increased so it will be able to carry more cargo even further.
Its weaknesses, its indiscretion to the radar driven by its design, vertical empennage, gondolas engines and weaponry in sub-alar supports, will continue to exist, but it will continue to be the most profitable bomber for cases where the enemy does not have sophisticated air defenses or these have already been eliminated by the B-2. In addition, with its new features and better weapons, it will be able to attack from a greater distance and with greater precision, so the BUFF has a rope for a while and it would be no wonder to keep seeing it active beyond 2050.