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L3Harris To Upgrade USAF B-52 Bomber

Boeing B-52 / USA - Air Force. In seven years or so, if everything goes according to plan, the U.S. Air Force should get what looks like a n...

Boeing B-52 / USA - Air Force.
In seven years or so, if everything goes according to plan, the U.S. Air Force should get what looks like a new bomber. A Boeing B-52 with new engines, new radios, new jammers, a new radar and fresh structural components. Even its profile might be new if the Air Force opts to remove redundant sensor pods.

The youngest B-52 left Boeing’s Wichita factory in 1962, meaning the 76 B-52Hs that remain in service are, technically, at least 59 years old. They’ll be at least 66 years old in 2028, the year Boeing and engine-maker Rolls-Royce plan to redeliver the first bomber with new F130 engines replacing the 1960s-vintage TF33s.

The Air Force finally announced the long-expected engine contract last week. Once the F130s are underwing, very little of a B-52 will be in its original state. The bombers are flying examples of the Ship of Theseus paradox. Take a 2,000-year-old ship and gradually replace every plank. How old is the ship?

The oldest parts of any B-52 are the basic metal structures deep inside the airframe—and those are “good bones,” to quote Gen. Robin Rand, former head of Air Force Global Strike Command. Everything else has been replaced at least once. Every four years, a B-52 spends a few months at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, where workers strip off the plane’s paint, remove panels and inspect every component, repairing or replacing the broken ones.

Boeing B-52H Stratofortress  / USA - Air Force.
The most fragile element of a B-52 is the skin of its upper wing. Boeing replaced that skin on all serving bombers back in the late 1970s. ''I would be surprised if there's an original rivet in any of those airplanes we have out on the ramp,” Col. Robert Durkin, then commander of the 28th Bombardment Wing—a B-52 unit in South Dakota—told a reporter in 1983. “It's been re-winged. It's been re-skinned. It's been re-tailed.”

The $2.6-billion re-engining effort, which involves Rolls-Royce building eight F130s per bomber plus some spares and Boeing swapping the old TF33s for them, might also includes new pylons. At the same time Boeing is installing the new engines, it’s open to also uninstalling the two undernose pods that the company added to the bombers in the early 1970s. Those pods once contained infrared and daylight video cameras that assisted with low-level navigation. Today B-52s generally fly at high altitude and anyway are compatible with modern camera pods, rendering the old sensors obsolete. Removing the undernose pods could reduce drag, Boeing explained.

The new engines and other changes could boost the B-52’s fuel efficiency by 40 percent, extending its unrefueled range with a standard weapons load and a one-hour fuel reserve from 5,100 miles to 7,400 miles. That extension should allow a B-52 to conduct a cruise-missile strike anywhere in the world with no more than one mid-air refueling, according to a 2004 analysis by the Defense Science Board. While the Air Force inched toward the B-52 engine contract, it moved more quickly to replace other obsolete systems aboard the iconic bomber.

In 2011, the service paid Boeing $12 billion to rewire all 76 B-52s and add Link 16 datalinks and new cockpit displays. The new wiring lets the bombers carry precision-guided bombs in their internal bays, instead of strictly on their wing pylons. Eight years later, the Air Force tapped Raytheon to install a new electronically-scanned radar in the venerable bombers, finally replacing the antique AN/APQ-166. The Air Force expects to award the radar contract this year and get the first unit in 2023.

And this year, the flying branch paid L3Harris a billion dollars to replace the B-52s’ old analogue ALQ-172 radar-jammer with a digital copy of the same system. A 1960-vintage B-52H with fresh rivets, new wiring, modern sensors and jammers and the latest engines—not to mention a sleeker silhouette—isn’t really a 1960-vintage bomber, is it? In light of the profound changes the “old” warplane is undergoing, the Air Force is mulling a new designation. Either B-52H+ or, better, B-52J.

At a combined cost of $15 billion so far, the 20-year B-52 modernization effort is a steal. The 76 new-old bombers could remain in service through the 2050s alongside a hundred or more new B-21 stealth bombers, five of which are under construction ahead of a planned first flight in 2022.

Each B-21 costs around $600 million, meaning the whole fleet could end up costing $60 billion for a hundred bombers, or $84 billion for 140. The Air Force plans to deploy the non-stealthy B-52s as cruise-missile-shooters while the B-21s fly missions inside the range of enemy air-defenses.