First launched in 1954, the B-52 Stratofortress was a cornerstone of American Cold War nuclear deterrence for decades. And as a plane that could carry conventional weapons as well, it saw service in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
But with a replacement bomber still on the drawing board, the B-52 could see service well into the 2040’s. At that point, some of the older airframes could be approaching 90 years of age — likely to be the oldest aircraft in the history of the Air Force.
"We're going to keep the B-52 around. It provides some missions for us that are hard to replicate, primarily the range and payload the airplane provides," Lt. Gen. James "Mike" Holmes, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, said Feb. 18.
That’s why the service is focusing on a modernization effort to make sure the B-52’s stay flying for years to come. Here’s what you need to know:
1. The plane – The Boeing-built bomber is a dual-use conventional/nuclear aircraft. According to a fact sheet from the Air Force, the B-52 can fly as high as 50,000 feet with an unrefueled range of 8,800 miles. Max speed is 650 miles per hour, just a little below Mach 1. It can carry an estimated payload of 70,000 lbs., including "gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision guided (cruise) missiles and joint direct attack munitions," the Air Force said. There are 58 currently in the active component, with another 18 overseen by the Reserves.
2. Electronic warfare – In January, Florida-based defense contractor Harris Corporation received the contract to do an electronic warfare overhaul on the B-52. The work will bolster the aircraft's electronic countermeasure systems that give the plane protection against air and ground radar weapons systems. The upgrades will also be installed on various C-130s. "With the modern technology we're able to use today, the number of electrical components in each box is significantly reduced and simplified," said Jared Belinsky, Harris' project manager for the electronic upgrades, adding that it helps reduce the weight of the systems onboard the aircraft.
3. Weapon bays – Six B-52s can now fire GPS-guided munitions after Boeing reconfigured their weapons bays to carry a wider array of munitions, the Air Force announced. The improvements use a rotary launcher to allow B-52s to carry GPS satellite-guided missiles and bombs for the first time, and the six launchers can be transferred between aircraft, Boeing said. The improvements give "crew members greater flexibility to adapt to changing conditions on the battlefield," a statement from the company said.
4. JASSM – Speaking of munitions, the Air Force is starting to install the new Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles – Extended Range (JASSM-ER) on the B-52. These Lockheed Martin-built weapons are designed to start replacing older stand-off cruise missile variants. The bomber can carry 12 JASSMs attached to its wings, but the Air Force said the internal rotary launchers in the weapons bays could hold an additional eight. Those improvements aren't likely to be finished until 2018.
5. Radar – The Air Force is just starting the process of upgrading the B-52's radar systems, having only posted a request for information in January, and not yet soliciting bids from contractors. "The radar currently flying on the B-52 is limited," Holmes said. "It's an old radar, it doesn't have the reliability we'd like to have when you're flying long duration missions." He added, "We will buy a new radar, we're working through exactly what the requirements will be for that radar. If I was going to guess I'd say we'd probably take an existing radar somewhere and make it fit on the B-52 instead of developing something new."
6. LRSB – The Long Range Strike-Bomber is designed to eventually replace the B-52 all together, but the plane isn't past the planning stages right now. In October, the Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman the contract for the plane. Holmes said the service would be releasing further information about the bomber in March, including which companies and subcontractors will be building major components such as the engines. The Air Force doesn't expect the plane to reach initial operating capability until the mid-2020's.
Lara Seligman contributed to this story.