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Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: The B-52 Stratofortress Continues to Upgrade

Despite being the U.S. Air Force’s workhorse bomber for more than 60 years, when it comes to the B-52 Stratofortress, there is still room for improvement. One of the latest announced upgrades will enable the B-52 to carry an increased “smart weapons” capacity.

“With this modification, we’re converting the bomb bay from dropping just gravity-type bombs to releasing precision-guided weapons.”

The agreement between Boeing and the Air Force, valued at $24.6 million, will seek to develop a modification to the B-52’s existing weapons launchers so that smart weapons can be carried in the bomb bay. By carrying smart weapons in the bomb bay, the Air Force will be able to increase the  B-52’s precision weapons capacity by up to 50 percent. “With this modification, we’re converting the bomb bay from dropping just gravity-type bombs to releasing precision-guided weapons,” said Jennifer Hogan of Boeing Communications.

B-52 Stratofortress

Tinker Air Force Base maintainers at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, Okla., will work with Boeing to perform an upgrade to the B-52 Stratofortress, which will increase its smart-weapon capabilities. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Carlin Leslie

As part of the agreement, Boeing will produce three prototype launchers that will undergo test and evaluation. Initial operational capability is expected to come online in March 2016, and potential follow-on efforts could add more weapons and allow for the use of a mixed load of different weapon types. “When you combine that ability with the B-52’s unlimited range with air refueling, you have an efficient and versatile weapon system that is valuable to warfighters on the ground,” said Scott Oathout, Boeing’s B-52 program director. “This weapons capacity expansion joins the Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) program, a comprehensive communications upgrade that’s being installed on the aircraft, to give the warfighter even more flexibility.”

Once the first phase of the bomb bay upgrade reaches completion, the B-52 will have the payload capacity to carry two dozen 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) or twenty 2,000-pound JDAMs. Additional phases are envisioned as adding the capability to carry the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and its extended-range variant, as well as the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) and its jammer variant internally.

“This weapons capacity expansion joins the Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) program, a comprehensive communications upgrade that’s being installed on the aircraft, to give the warfighter even more flexibility.”

Another benefit to carrying the smart weapons internally, versus on external wing pylons, will be increased fuel efficiency. The modernization work will use parts from existing rotary launchers that have been repurposed for conventional missions. Some additional hardware and software that will be used has already been developed for the wing pylons.

The CONECT System currently being installed on the B-52, after successful testing, will give aircrews the ability to send and receive information via satellite links. This will enable B-52s to change mission plans and retarget weapons in flight. Currently, B-52 mission information has to be uploaded before flight. CONECT will also allow B-52 pilots to better interact with other aircraft, as well as with ground forces. “CONECT brings the B-52 into the network-centric battlefield, where it can connect with other platforms in the fight,” said Jim Kroening, Boeing’s B-52 Development Programs manager.

B-52 Stratofortress

Maj. Chris Weir, left, and Capt. Greg Lepper, 96th Bomb Squadron B-52H Stratofortress navigators, navigate a B-52 during a Green Flag-East training mission over Fort Polk, La., Aug. 21, 2013. The Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) upgrade will give B-52 crews the ability to change missions and retarget weapons while in flight. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder

Other CONECT improvements include the addition of a state-of-the-art computing network with work station at each crew position. An integrated interphone, with allowances for increased capacity, will allow crew members to talk to each other via headsets equipped with noise-canceling technology. CONECT will be installed by the 565th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., during programmed depot maintenance. One B-52 from Barksdale Air Force, La., was delivered for CONECT improvement last summer. Low-rate initial production of the first CONECT kits, along with spare parts, maintenance, and service are being provided by Boeing.

Still an important U.S. power projection tool after more than 60 years, the 76 B-52s in the Air Force fleet have recently reiterated their value.

The B-52 upgrades are needed when one considers the Air Force’s stalled Long Range Strike Bomber. Still an important U.S. power projection tool after more than 60 years, the 76 B-52s in the Air Force fleet have recently reiterated their value. Between the Continuous Bomber Presence in the Western Pacific and a recent B-52 training flight over South Korea, the B-52 suffers from no shortage of missions. The upgrade of the B-52 weapons capacity is further proof that the B-52s days aren’t numbered yet.

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...