The U.S. Air Force’s B-52 bomber is not a natural sea hunter. Boeing designed the huge, eight-engine warplane in the 1940s for atomic raids against Soviet cities.
But today the venerable B-52 has become a powerful maritime patrol and strike plane, thanks to a long history of upgrades culminating in the recent addition of an unassuming-looking underwing pod containing a high-tech search radar.
Starting in April, the Air Force fitted an AN/ASQ-236 Dragon’s Eye pod, built by Northrop Grumman, to a B-52H from the 93rd Bomb Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
Dragon’s Eye contains an advanced electronically-scanned array radar, or AESA. The Air Force first deployed the pod-radar combo on F-15Es in 2009 to help the fighter-bombers spot targets in Afghanistan.
Such electronically-scanned sensors have essentially no moving parts. Clusters of tiny emitters each send out their own radar beams, making the overall system better and more reliable than traditional, mechanical radars.
Specifically, the Dragon’s Eye sensor is a synthetic aperture radar, which can create high-resolution snapshots of terrain based on radar returns. SAR is great for quickly scanning vast areas in search of, for instance, man-made objects on a natural surface.
For that reason, the Dragon’s Eye AESA SAR is an effective sea-search sensor. And the dependable B-52 with its 35 tons of fuel and heavy payload is the perfect plane to carry the radar over the ocean.
A bomber crew could use the SAR to scan the ocean and narrow down areas for further investigation. Flying lower, a B-52 could survey the waters in greater detail with an underslung Litening infrared targeting pod. In 2007, B-52 crews developed tactics for inspecting ships with the Litening.
“The Dragon’s Eye pod paired with the B-52 leverages the existing tremendous range, loiter time and communication capabilities of the B-52 airframe in support of our maritime domain awareness mission,” said Col. Danny Wolf from Pacific Air Forces.
In other words, the B-52 is now a kick-ass maritime patrol plane. One that can also deliver more than 30 tons of weapons. Perfect for—oh, I don’t know—a future conflict with an increasingly heavily-armed China over the disputed China Seas.
“Our nation’s adversaries are not stagnating and neither are we,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time the B-52 has had a role in naval warfare. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Navy worried that Soviet bombers, subs and warships firing heavy anti-ship missiles could overwhelm the sailing branch’s defenses and sink its priceless aircraft carriers.
To help protect the flattops, the Air Force modified a dozen B-52Gs—older models than the B-52Hs—to fire Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The Harpoon-shooting bombers flew from Guam and Maine in order to cover both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
“If assigned to the perimeter defense, B-52s would allow the fleet to concentrate its force to an offensive strategy,” Dr. Donald Chipman and Maj. David Lay wrote for Air University Review in 1986.
But back then, the B-52s needed help finding targets. The Air Force and Navy modified E-2 and E-3 radar planes to pass data to the B-52s in order to cue the bombers’ Harpoons.
The B-52Gs retired in the 1990s. Today’s B-52Hs can also employ Harpoons in addition to a wide range of cruise missiles, laser- and satellite-guided bombs and unguided munitions. The Air Force is upgrading all 85 active B-52s with better communications and weapons compatibility.
And thanks to the new radar pod, today’s B-52s don’t need help spotting targets during a war at sea. They’re now maritime patrol planes in their own right.
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