The U.S. Air Force’s most recently upgraded bomber is actually more than 50 years old. On July 16 a Boeing B-52 built in the early 1960s took off from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana bound for another base in Oklahoma, where technicians are now installing the latest digital technology as part of a $12-billion effort to keep the ancient warplane on the cutting edge of aerial warfare.

The last of 744 B-52 Stratofortresses, a B-52H model, rolled out of Boeing's Wichita facility in 1962. Fifty years later in February 2012, the Pentagon identified the 185-foot-wingspan B-52 and the Air Force's other strategic bombers — the 1980s-vintage, swing-wing B-1 and the stealthy B-2 from the ‘90s — as vital weapons for the Pentagon's ongoing “pivot” towards the western Pacific. The flying branch is also developing a brand-new stealth bomber.

“The focus on the Asia-Pacific region places a renewed emphasis on air and naval forces,” the Pentagon announced. “Therefore we maintained the current bomber fleet.”

This endorsement spared the 77-strong B-52 fleet from cuts affecting fighter and airlift squadrons — and positioned the gigantic bomber for billions of dollars in upgrades meant to keep it on the cutting edge of warfare.

With low operating costs compared to other warplanes and an airframe life stretching at least into the 2040s, the B-52's future is bright. Planned and projected modifications will build on the bomber’s enormous payload, enhancing its sensor and communications suites and weapons options.

An airman readies a B-52 for towing at Barksdale Air Force Base. Air Force photo

Flying mutant

Scott Oathout, Boeing’s B-52 program manager, prefers to use the term “mutation” when describing the bomber’s changing roles and configurations over the years. “You started out with a mix of on-alert [nuclear-armed] aircraft, and then some earlier versions — the B-52D and Gs — were conventional-capable planes. The Hs we have now were primarily nuclear alert aircraft during the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

“You then have a mutation of technology happening in late ‘80s and early ‘90s with GPS and new weapons,” Oathout continues. “You had the first glimpse of what we call ‘smart weapons,’ in the category of JDAMs, etc. That started a transformation back into the conventional and precision-type of bombing. You went from what was not necessarily a close-air-support platform at all to a platform that was moving in that direction.”

After extensive modifications, today’s B-52 carries the widest range of weapons of any Air Force warplane — everything from “dumb” gravity bombs to laser- and satellite-guided bombs, ultra-heavy penetrating bombs, cluster bombs, conventional cruise missiles, nuclear bombs and missiles and even drone decoys and experimental hypersonic rockets.

Starting in 2007, the addition of Litening targeting pods containing cameras and laser designators has allowed B-52 crews to find and lock onto their own targets, making them largely autonomous during bombing runs instead of relying on other planes or people on the ground to guide them.

One important caveat: the B-52 carries guided weapons exclusively on its wing pylons. The bomb bay is compatible only with nuclear and conventional gravity bombs.

The bomber’s robustness underpins its historical adaptability — and opens it up for future modifications. The B-52's origins in the 1950s, an era of manual, low-precision aerospace design, resulted in an airframe with conservative tolerances and extra margins, according to Jim Kroening, who works under Oathout. “Every aspect of the aircraft — structurally, the capability to hold weapons and avionics, the power — had large margins in it. The wing capacity, the carriage capacity — it was beefed up even more in the ‘70s from a structural standpoint.”

“The initial designers set us up for success for many, many years,” Oathout says. The latest enhancements being installed beginning this month fall under the Combat Network Communications Technology, or CONECT program. The Boeing-run CONECT, covered by an eight-year, $12-billion contract that also includes fleet-wide maintenance, adds digital communications infrastructure including satellite comms and a line-of-sight data-link.

“Now we're getting into network technology,” Oathout says. “You can use and pass data and change targets or missions in flight. That kind of technology is just now being put on the jets.”

A B-52 deployed to Guam takes off on a training mission. Air Force photo

Way ahead

After CONECT, Oathout says he expects B-52 enhancements to focus on weapons flexibility, so that a single aircraft can attack several different targets with different munitions, all during the same flight. “Flexibility-wise, we're just now starting a program that puts smart weapons in the bomb bay.”

That initiative, when combined with CONECT, will give the B-52 a true “retasking” capability, mixing and matching weapons and targets over missions lasting 12 hours or more with aerial refueling.

Say, a salvo of Joint Air-Surface Standoff Missiles to destroy, at long range, enemy air-defense radars and surface-to-air missiles, with targeting data provided by satellite; then a couple self-designated laser-guided bombs to take out enemy naval vessels; finally, satellite-guided JDAMs, dropped through the clouds onto enemy infantry positions at coordinates relayed by friendly ground forces.

The new, more flexible B-52 will be a “very powerful tool for the Air Force,” Oathout says. Beyond that, he says the Air Force is planning on replacing, by the early 2020s, the bomber's existing, mechanically-scanned APQ-166 strategic radar with a new, electronically-scanned array. That modification is primarily aimed at enhancing the B-52's reliability, although the new radar could deliver operational improvements as well, especially in regards to targeting.

After that, the ‘60s-vintage bomber will probably still have another 20 years left in service — meaning another two decades of evolution for a warplane that, over its lifespan, has gone from high-altitude nuclear bomber to the multi-mission attacker of today. The B-52 might be old as Hell, but in a lot of ways it’s just getting started.

David last wrote about a Navy drone with a mind of its own. Subscribe to War is Boring: medium.com/feed/war-is-boring.