60-Year-Old B-52: The Smartphone of Aircraft?
By Stew Magnuson
It isn’t often an aircraft that last rolled off the production line in the 1960s is compared to the smartphone, a ubiquitous symbol of cutting edge electronics.
Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, Global Strike Command commander, sung the praises of the Cold War-era long-range bomber before Washington, D.C.-based reporters Feb. 6.
“A B-52 is really similar to your smartphone. It is a bomber, but it is also whatever you put on it,” said Kowalski, who began his career as a B-52D pilot.
It can drop information leaflets for information operations campaigns. Studies have looked into placing pods on it to do electronic attack. It can carry the AGM-158 joint air-to-surface standoff missile, a cruise missile that makes the aircraft one of the nation’s premier stand-off bombers, he said.
The B-52, along with aerial refueling tankers, has become a symbol of aging Air Force aircraft that are long overdue for retirement. The Air Force just marked the 60th anniversary of the B-52’s first flight. The newest aircraft in the fleet was delivered 50 years ago.
Kowalski early in his career in 1987 was serving on the joint staff, when someone asked him to look at a proposal for new B-52 engines.
“Then someone said, ‘Well, you know, we are not going to have these planes much longer, so we’re not going to do this,’” Kowalski recalled.
The fact is, the average B-52 has about 20,000 hours of flight time on the airframe and they can take up to 80,000 hours, he noted. More than 25 years after he saw the proposal for new engines, he still didn’t think there was a need. It would make sense to look at it again if he could do a business-case analysis that went out to 2040.
“I don’t think we’re going to look out to 2040, and I don’t think we can make a good business case to re-engine the B-52 given the cost of buying and installing engines.”
There are plenty spare Pratt & Whitney TF-33 engines in the inventory, and there is no shortage of parts, he added. The Air Force may get an efficiency and performance boost with a newer engine, but staying with the old, affordable TF-33s will allow the service to concentrate on weapons and other upgrades, he added.
“We think we’re going to have it for a long time,” he said of the B-52. “There is a lot of life left on the airframe.”
Meanwhile, budget cuts have reduced the number of flying hours put on the B-52. Some of that precedes the current fiscal crises. The bomber flies 20 percent fewer hours per year than it did prior to September 2001, he said.
The aircraft will fly a further 10 percent fewer hours if sequestration comes to pass, he said.
The command has not shown any readiness rate degradation as a result of the reduced in flying hours, he said. The B-52 is part of the nation’s nuclear “triad,” which calls for the ability to launch warheads via aircraft, missiles and submarines. Air Force Global Strike Command oversees the missile and bomber missions.
The adjustment is to keep the sortie rate high. That is not just about keeping the flight crews sharp, he said. “When you execute flying hours, it is not just aircrew getting activity, you are executing the entire process,” he said. Putting on the armaments, refueling and doing routine maintenance keeps the whole squadron ready, he added.
The average B-52 sortie duration is five to six hours, he said. “If you take a 10-percent cut at the wing and squadron level, we can probably manage that for a little while.”
Longer term, there may have to be some readjustments to modernization programs, operations and other accounts that would be discussed at higher levels in the Air Force. Those conversations haven’t happened yet, he said.
“We are going to have to manage this carefully, and we are going to have to work to keep that sortie rate up so we maintain that foundation,” he said.
As far as the B-52’s proposed replacement, the long-range strike bomber, Kowalski declined to comment on that program since he is not in the development and acquisition business.
Photo Credit: Air Force