Air Force’s Aging Bombers Get Digital Makeover

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Air Force is expected soon to award a multibillion-dollar contract to build a new stealth bomber. But while it waits for the next-generation bomber, the Air Force plans to continue to update its aging aircraft so they can stay in service until at least 2040.

At one of the Air Force’s largest maintenance depots at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, technicians have been removing Cold War-era computers and electronics from decades-old B-1 and B-52 bombers, and replacing them with cutting-edge avionics supplied by The Boeing Co. Between 2012 and 2020, the Air Force will spend upwards of $250 million to modernize up to 60 B-1B and 76 B-52H bombers.

Both fleets have been in service far longer than anyone imagined. Next month the Air Force will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Reagan-era B-1B bomber. The B-52H dates back to the Kennedy administration and is still flying in combat.

Under separate upgrade projects that started about three years ago, both fleets are being equipped with modern systems on a par with newly manufactured combat airplanes. They include digital cockpits and communications systems so pilots and crews have access to real-time intelligence feeds and are connected to the military’s tactical networks.

“When I first flew the B-1 in 1997, I recall debriefing using a handheld tape recorder, whereas today you go in the cockpit and have multiple screens with digital displays,” said Air Force Col. Jason Combs, commander of the 7thOperations Group at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, one of two bases that house the B-1 fleet.

The B-1 was first delivered June 29, 1985. It was conceived as a strategic nuclear bomber but was converted to a conventional bomber following the 1991 strategic arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, and in the past decade was fitted with targeting pods to perform close air support missions in Afghanistan.

The new avionics upgrade, called the “integrated battle station,” is under way at Tinker Air Force Base. Boeing received a contract to produce 33 IBS kits and has delivered 18 so far. A new contract is in the works for an additional 27, said Rick Greenwell, B-1 program director at Boeing. There are about 2,400 pieces of equipment in each kit. The company makes the hardware and the installation is done by government workers at the Tinker maintenance depot. The Air Force to date has upgraded six bombers and expects to deliver the seventh next month.

The entire fleet of 60 B-1Bs is scheduled to be updated by 2019. “We are trying to make the B-1 viable and relevant to 2040 and beyond,” Greenwell said in an interview. “First, we have to make sure that structurally it will last. Also, that the avionics are current.”

The integrated battle station replaces 1980s-vintage avionics in both front and back cockpits, and combines three systems: a data link, a vertical situation display unit and a central integrated test system. “It’s a very large mod, with thousands of parts per aircraft,” Greenwell said. “It requires removing the wiring, the front and back seats, replacing the consoles with new equipment.” With this upgrade, he added, “It looks like a brand-new aircraft.”

After the hardware installation is completed at Tinker, bombers are sent to Dyess Air Force Base where they are put through combat-like tests by the 337th Test and Evaluation Squadron.
Separately, Boeing is putting the B-1 airframes through fatigue tests at a facility in Puget Sound, Washington. “We try to get ahead of the fleet in finding any structural problems,” said Greenwell. “We haven’t found any major issues so far.” The wings and other parts of the airframe are being hardened to make sure they hold out until 2040, he said. “We finished 53 of the 60 aircraft.

“I don’t think anyone really envisioned” how long this airplane would stay in service, he said. “It has been one of those aircraft that has been able to change as the environment has changed.”
Some of the electronics the Air Force is buying for B-1 bombers are shared with the B-52 fleet. Unique to the B-52 is a $76 million upgrade called combat network communications technology, or CONECT. It replaces 50-year old analog intercoms and obsolete displays, said Jim Kroening, B-52 development programs manager at Boeing. The first B-52 H-models were delivered to the Air Force in 1961.

The B-1 data link is the “cousin to the B-52 CONECT,” he said. “They are very similar technologies.”

With the updated electronics at satellite communications, the B-52 is a “viable platform beyond 2040,” he said. “It’s a testament to the engineering that was done well over a half-century ago.”
The CONECT system allows bomber crews to retarget weapons while in flight. It provides intelligence feeds that are displayed on moving maps. Bombers travel huge distances and often circumstances change after commanders launch a mission, so the Air Force wanted crews to have more awareness and knowledge of the situation at hand, Kroening said. Compared to the legacy systems, “It’s like going from a rotary dial phone to a smartphone.” Old B-52 mission computers have monochromatic displays, with green text on black background, and the only graphics are stick figures. Without this upgrade, mission information must be uploaded to a B-52 before a flight.

Boeing provides kits to Air Force technicians from the 565th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Tinker who do the installation. The entire fleet of 76 bombers is scheduled to be modernized by late 2019, or early 2020. Boeing is under contract to provide 30 kits, and has delivered 10 so far. The company plans to submit a new proposal to the Air Force to provide the additional 46.

The airframes are regularly probed for fatigue issues, said Kroening. “The airframe is solid. It’s maintained regularly and analyzed. Unlike the B-1, the B-52 is used for both strategic nuclear and tactical roles such as close air support.

At this rate, it is conceivable that the B-52 could reach 100 years old. “That is not out of the realm of possibility,” said Kroening.

Last year the Air Force started to retrofit B-52 bomb bays to pack 50 percent more weapons. The new weapon release systems will be completed in March 2016. The B-52 will be able to carry two dozen 500-pound joint direct attack munitions or 20 2,000-pound JDAMs. Later updates will add the joint air-to-surface standoff missile and the miniature air launched decoy.

Boeing is modifying weapon launchers so the aircraft can carry weapons internally, instead of having to hang them on pylons on the wings of the bomber. “This is a big deal,” said Kroening. “There are many advantages of having a ‘clean wing’ from an aerodynamic perspective and also from not giving away the nature of the mission because weapons area not exposed.”

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Bomb and Warhead, C4ISR, Sensors

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