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FEATURE ARTICLE  

 B-52 Flies in Face of Critics  

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 Stew Magnuson

 

The longest serving military aircraft in the world, the B-52 Stratofortess, often is praised for its storied history, but it also has become a symbol of the Pentagon's inertia in moving forward with the development of a new bomber.

"I think there's been a huge disparity in how much money is invested in bombers versus the short-range aircraft," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

"There still isn't a program for a new replacement bomber, and there needs to be," he told a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments forum. The Air Force, Dicks said, is "limping along" with aging bombers.

Retired general and former head of the Air Combat Command, Richard Hawley, said the Defense Department needs to start planning for a new generation of bombers to be deployed by 2020 at the latest. "We've got to get off this do-nothing kick," he added.

The Air Force, meanwhile, does not appear to be in any hurry to build a new bomber, and maintains that the Stratofortress fleet is healthy enough to continue to fly for many years.

The B-52 is going to remain in operation for three more decades, Col. James Nally, B-52 program director at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., told National Defense.

Current plans call for the Air Force to keep the B-52 H-class fleet active until 2040. By that time, the last aircraft to roll off the Boeing assembly line in 1962 will be 78 years old.

Because the B-52's first mission was to stand ready to deliver nuclear payloads, the aircraft spent most of its hours on the tarmac, Nally said. "Even though it's an old airplane, it doesn't have the amount of wear and tear for it that you would expect," Nally said. "Long term, we don't see any issues with the structure of the airplane."

Richard Martin, B-52 deputy program director, said the average B-52 is in the air about 250 hours a year. The upper wing surface has a limit of 28,600 to 33,200 hours of life, and the average unit has logged about 12,500 hours so far. Ninety-four aircraft remain in the fleet. "Our chart doesn't go past 2040, but on the line they are on, it could go past 2040 for sure," Martin added.

The B-52 has evolved greatly from its Cold War days and will continue to add new missions with upgrades, such as the standoff jammer, in the works. Air Force officials said.

The original B-52 models were designed for long-range, high-altitude flights to deliver nuclear payloads. The H-class, however, included defensive and structural modifications that allowed it to fly lower to evade Soviet air defenses. The Air Force then used the B-52 during the Vietnam War to drop conventional munitions, Hawley said. This evolution, from strategic bomber to the close air support it provides today, has made the aircraft the most flexible of the three bombers, its supporters said.

With precision-guided munitions, the "bombers have come of age," Hawley said. In Operation Desert Storm, the Stratofortress flew more than 1,600 missions while the B-1 was hampered by a bomb-loading process that took nearly 24 hours, said Hawley, who has in the past advocated cutting both the B-52 and B-1 programs.

Upgrades to replace obsolete components, such as avionics, and to add new capabilities continue, Nally said. Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin currently is upgrading the B-52's mission computers with the avionics control unit to increase its power and allow the aircraft to deploy new precisions weapons. The upgrades are expected to be completed by 2009.

Communications modifications will include the satellite-based Link 16 system, which allows for in-flight retasking and connectivity to ground forces. Structural upgrades for the fuselage and wings extending the B-52's life took place from 1964 to 1985, Martin added.

The standoff jammer is the next phase in the evolution, Nally said. The Stratofortress will not only have the ability to protect itself, but other aircraft in the theater by interrupting any kind of communications the enemy can employ including surface-to-air missiles, aircraft-to-aircraft communications and data transfers. The Air Force is still in the contractor-selection process with development not due to begin for another two years. The jammer won't be fielded until 2015-2016, Nally added.

Even with new capabilities not due to come on line until the middle of the next decade, new-bomber advocates such as Dicks-whose 6th district includes Boeing's manufacturing base- said now is the time to look for a replacement.

However, since the disbanding of the Strategic Air Command in 1992 there are few left within the Air Force willing to take up the mantle for long-range strike aircraft, Dicks said.

Nally sounded an optimistic note on the future of the B-52, perhaps not what proponents of a new bomber want to hear. Not only is the aircraft proving its worth on a daily basis in Afghanistan and Iraq, it could continue to serve a vital role on future conflicts for decades to come, even beyond the 2040 retirement date.

"Structurally it's doable, but even if it is doable, it's not necessarily a given the Air Force would choose to do that," Nally said.

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