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The Air Force's venerable half-century-old Boeing B-52 bomber is getting its biggest makeover yet.
A host of ongoing and planned upgrades will keep the 76 jets flying for three more decades, service officials said.
"The B-52, as a bomber, still has a nuclear mission in combination with the Air Launched Cruise Missile," said Maj. Gen. William Chambers, the Air Staff strategic deterrence and nuclear integration officer. "The continued upgrade of the B-52's electronics and the effort we have underway for a new cruise missile are both examples of where we're taking very old systems and making them last longer."
The planned upgrades total three:
• The CONECT program will put a digital backbone and communications suite into the largely analog aircraft.
• A new 1760 databus architecture will allow the old bird to drop modern smart weapons from its internal weapon bays.
• Strategic radar will replace the B-52's antiquated 1960s-vintage system.
In the past decade, the B-52 was fitted with the LITENING targeting pod, which allows the crew members to designate their own targets and send video to ground stations.
The various upgrades increase capability and make it easier — and, in some cases, cheaper — to maintain an aircraft with various subsystems and parts that went out of production long ago.
"The airframe itself is very solid, very reliable," with enough life left in it to fly into the 2040s, said Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.
The Air Force has a plentiful supply of engines, he said.
Today's B-52 crews rely on talking to each other to pass weapons and flight data within and beyond their aircraft. CONECT is meant to replace voice with faster, surer machine-to-machine datalinks, said Jim Kroening, Boeing's B-52 development programs manager.
Based on Microsoft Windows, the new distributed high-speed network will add a line-of-sight Link-16 capability, new Internet protocol-based radios, variable message format system and new satellite communications, Kroening said.
The crew also will get color displays of moving maps that fuse data from off-board sources and present the data in an easy-to-understand format.
"It's huge situational awareness capability," he said.
Kroening said the CONECT has completed all but about two flight tests. It will move into low-rate initial production in June , he said, with batches of eight and 10 aircraft to be finished by 2014, he said.
The CONECT is also meant to ease other planned upgrades, including one for the planes' main target-seeking radar. The radar, which dates to the 1960s, received its previous major update in the 1980s.
"We're continuing to evaluate the strategic radar," Kowalski said. "The mean time between failure is continuing to drop. We're going to have to replace that at some point."
The Air Force is looking at an in-production radar, but it would have to be hardened for the nuclear mission. The service would like an active electronically scanned array but may have to settle for a mechanically scanned array because of budgetary constraints.
"It's going to be an affordability vs. capability tradeoff," Kroening said.
A competition is expected next year, but risk-reduction work is already well underway. If all goes well, the radar could be installed on the fleet between 2016 and 2018.
The addition of the 1760 databus hardware and associated software would allow the B-52 to carry smart weapons inside its internal weapons bay, said Cathy McClain, Boeing's B-52 sustainment manager. Currently, the aircraft can carry precision weapons only on its external pylons, which limits the payload and increases the plane's drag, she said.
Funding for the program's Increment I should be available in the next three months for work to begin in earnest. By 2015, the aircraft should be able to load into its bomb bay the Joint Direct Attack Munition, Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile and Miniature Air-Launched Decoy.
Increment I will allow crews to load the bay's rotary launcher with eight weapons of a single type, McClain said.
Increment II will double the number of weapons and will allow them to be mixed and matched, she said.
It also might add the 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb, which would further increase the number of weapons available to the B-52 crew, she said.
The Air Force, she said, hasn't set a definitive operational date for Increment II.
Boeing is also adding the Sniper targeting pod to the B-52, which will give the plane more flexibility to use available resources, McClain said.
Though designed and built in a bygone era, the eight-engine jet forms a vital part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent by launching stand-off missiles, Air Force officials said. Since converting its B-1 Lancers for conventional use only, the service's only other nuclear-capable strategic bombers are in the service's inventory are its 20 B-2 Spirits.
As part of Air Force plans to keep the B-52 relevant in its nuclear role, Boeing has been asked by the Air Force to support a fly-off for a new air-launched cruise missile, McClain said. The competition will require Boeing to modify the hardware and software of the B-52 to support two cruise missile designs.
The resultant weapon, called the Long Range Stand-off Missile, will be carried operationally on the B-52 and B-2 bombers, replacing the aging arsenal of ALCMs, Kowalski said.
It is part of the Long Range Strike family of systems, which includes the new Long Range Strike Bomber and Conventional Prompt Global Strike, he said.
Stealthy and long-legged, the new missile will enable the B-52 to carry out strikes deep in enemy territory, even though modern radars and weapons mean the old plane would have to do it from stand-off ranges, Chambers said.
"The program is launched in the form of an analysis of alternatives," he said. "We need the new cruise missile in production in the mid-2020s."
The analysis will determine whether the new weapon also would be used for conventional missions, but Chambers said that right now, the service has set its requirements correctly.