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This article was Originally Published on Sep 15, 2003 in Volume: 2  Issue: 4

B-52 Transformation

Keeping the most versatile bomber in the fleet fresh for the next 37 years.

By Mickey McCarter

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Before the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant found himself pinned down by Taliban fighters. Acting as a forward observer, the sergeant had come under fire. He was sure he would die unless he could get help quickly.

The sergeant called for any aircraft in the area that could help him. A B-52 bomber, equipped with a wind-corrected munitions dispenser (WCMD), swooped in and provided the sergeant with the cover he needed to escape.

Dean Morris, the Air Force B-52 System Program Office, program management division chief, tells this story to illustrate how the role of the B-52 aircraft has changed. As the B-52 undergoes avionics and weapons performance upgrades, it continues to take on roles traditionally fulfilled by fighter aircraft. Fighters, however, carry fewer weapons and require refueling with greater frequency than the B-52. These abilities are very much on the minds of Air Force leaders as the bomber receives additional smart weapons to augment those it already has, like the WCMD.


To keep the B-52 flying, however, the aircraft needed a number of prompt upgrades to its avionics systems. Morris said that the B-52 inertial navigation system appeared ready for obsolesce around 2005 when the decision was made in the mid-1990s to keep the aircraft in inventory until 2040. Thus, the Air Force developed the B-52 Avionics Midlife Improvement (AMI) program, a $260 million modification program designed to replace the key avionics system of the aircraft.

“This program replaces the inertial navigation system, the avionics control units and the data transfer system,” Morris said. “Those three systems make up the offensive avionics system of the plane.”

In December of 1999 the Air Force awarded the AMI contract to The Boeing Co., which built the B-52 in its facility in Wichita, KS. The new avionics will undergo testing through the end of 2003, enter production in 2004 and then start fielding in 2005. If all goes well, all B-52 aircraft will receive the new systems by 2007.

In April and May of this year, AMI passed two key tests as the two B-52 test aircraft flew out of Edwards Air Force Base, CA. One test verified the navigation system’s ability to fly near the North Pole while recognizing skewed magnetic lines. The second test ensured the aircraft’s navigation system could handle multiple crossings of the equator and inter-national dateline.

“There’s little doubt that the replacement will work,” Morris said. “It’s just a matter of how many tweaks we have to do between now and when we start fielding it on 93 or 94 airplanes.”

As part of the avionics upgrade, the Air Force is rewriting all of the software that powers the B-52’s computers. The software, which consists of about 260,000 lines of code, is being rewritten from an old language called JOVIAL to a new one, ADA, which is modular and easy to adapt.


“There are two aspects to integrating weapons,” explained Dean Price, the Air Force B-52 system program office, program management division, weapons, communication and navigation team lead. “One is the physical carriage-and-release system. The second is that smart weapons need target data passed to them, so we also have to work the software and the electronic interface.”

The B-52 must still carry the full Air Force complement of dumb bombs, which do not require reprogramming in flight. However, future weapons systems focus on smart weapons. Smart weapons require the B-52 to undergo minor physical modifications and extensive software modifications.

“We use a modular concept to integrate weapons called stores management overlay [SMO],” Price said. “That is a software module that interfaces with the weapons software and the aircraft flight management system and the offensive avionics system. For each weapon that we integrate, our prime integrator Boeing tailors an SMO to that particular weapon.”

In the last four years, four of these smart weapons have been integrated into the B-52: the WCMD, the joint direct attack munition (JDAM), the joint standoff weapon (JSW), and the joint air-to-surface standoff missile (JASSM). All are certified except the JASSM, which is still undergoing operational testing.

Price said that the Air Force would like to create the capability to carry these smart weapons externally and internally on the B-52. Currently, the aircraft can only carry these weapons externally on pylons. Air Combat Command (ACC) would like to incorporate the weapons into the bomb bay but has not committed the funding to do so yet.

“The real benefit of that is that it would increase our smart weapons carriage capability anywhere from two-thirds to 100 percent,” said John Kegley, a representative from Boeing’s bomber business development.

The Air Force is also working on extended range versions of the WCMD and JASSM weapons, which it expects to incorporate into the B-52 around 2009. All smart weapons must comply with MIL-STD-1760, which stipulates how to manufacture weapons for use across the joint services. The services are no longer interested in spending a lot of money on a weapon that they cannot adapt for use on other aircraft, Price said. Indeed, several of the smart weapons placed on the B-52 recently were originally outfitted on Navy jets.

This standardization has also enabled accelerated testing and deployment of weapon systems in some cases. To support B-52 weapons systems in Operation Iraqi Freedom, ACC requested the addition of the Litening II targeting pod to B-52 aircraft. Originally, a test of the addition of the pod was not scheduled until June. The B-52 program, based at Tinker Air Force Base, OK, fielded the system in about 120 days, and the B-52 flew in Iraq with it in March.

The Litening II is the predecessor of a more advanced system that the Air Force will place on all B-52 aircraft. The system enables the B-52 to launch laser-guided munitions, which hit targets with extreme accuracy. It eliminates some possibility for human error because its laser determines the correct global positioning system coordinates for a weapon’s destination and feeds that to the munition without the need for a person to enter the coordinates.

“Last summer, we got a request from ACC to carry a laser-guided bomb,” Price said. “We had never carried one before. It was another one of those quick-response things. We have responded to a lot of those since 9/11 and the war on terrorism.”

The B-52 thus tested the guided bomb unit (GBU)-12 on March 28 in conjunction with the Litening II targeting pod. Historically, only fighter jets have carried laser-guided bombs. However, the B-52 can carry the bombs internally and externally and carry the capacity of six or more fighters, Morris said. A bomber like the   B-52 can loiter at a high altitude and stay on station longer than a fighter. As such, it can stay in the immediate area and engage emerging threats, whereas fighters typically have enough fuel to fly to their targets and back. The B-52 demonstrated that capability on April 7 when it targeted the Baghdad airport during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The B-52 will also receive the miniature air launched decoy (MALD), which is an unmanned aerial vehicle that can fool enemy detection systems into believing it is a full-sized aircraft. MALD, developed by Northrop Grumman, augments the B-52’s radar capabilities while confusing enemy radar systems. The Air Force plans to field it on the B-52 in 2007.

Power Pods

Eight Pratt & Whitney TF-33 engines currently power the B-52. These engines have been on the plane for a long time, and they are nowhere near as efficient as modern engines.

“These [engines] were put on in 1962, so you can imagine how they suck fuel,” Morris said. “It’s like taking your 1962 car and comparing it to a 2002 car. Obviously, these things are harder to maintain. The maintenance cost of them has gone up over the years, and they suck fuel pretty quickly.”

Boeing is near the end of a six-month study to examine the possibility of replacing the TF-33 engines with four modern commercial high-bypass engines. In recent years, the Air Force had determined that budget constraints made it impossible to replace the engines on the B-52 due to the enormous investment costs of purchasing and replacing engines for the aircraft. With the aircraft likely to retire in 2040, the investment still seems risky.

But the Boeing study is examining an alternative that may yet work. Under the Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC), Boeing is examining the performance and capabilities of three engines, manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce and General Electric, to determine if the Air Force could afford one of the options under a unique financing arrangement.

ESPC requires funding from a third-party financier, who loans the money to a contractor. In this case, financial services firm Hannon Armstrong is working with Boeing to see if the Air Force could use cost savings derived from the efficiencies of new engines to pay back the considerable loan amount over the life of the aircraft.

In this scenario, “Boeing has borrowed money and made this huge investment. How do they get paid back?” Morris said. “You are talking about over a billion dollars that needs to be paid back. For the next 25 years, the Air Force would have paid higher fuel costs and higher maintenance costs on the old engines than what these new engines would take. The Air Force takes the money it would have paid on fuel and maintenance for the old engines and gives that money to Boeing every year.”

Congress authorized the Boeing ESPC study, and it must examine the results of the study to determine if it will change the law to permit ESPC to apply to the B-52. By law, ESPC is authorized for use on large stationary structures, such as buildings that require upgrades because they generate too much pollution or require too much oil. Congress authorized ESPC to apply to these structures only; thus, Congress must revisit the law to allow the Air Force to use ESPC for the B-52. The aircraft would become the first mobile asset to use ESPC, said Scot Oathaut, Boeing bomber program manager.

“We have to prove the savings by doing engineering analysis and providing some real hard data to document that,” Oathaut said. “That is really what the study is to do is to take all three manufacturers’ potential engines and analyze how they would fit under the wing of the B-52 physically, mechanically, thrustwise and then evaluate how they would fit in an ESPC program. You have 25 years to make the payback, so every dollar has to come out of the operational and maintenance budget for the B-52 for that 25 years or the program is a no-go.”

Oathaut stresses that ESPC is not a lease program. Boeing transfers ownership of the B-52 and its new engines completely to the Air Force as soon as it takes delivery of the aircraft. Should the financing approach prove successful, the B-52 gains a new engine with significant improved combat capability in terms of range, loiter time, and reduced operations and maintenance costs, Boeing’s Kegley said.

Electronic Warfare

The Air Force is taking a “system of systems” approach to outfitting the B-52. Essentially, the bomber must interface seamlessly with other Air Force aircraft while demonstrating advanced interoperability with other weapons throughout the DoD.

Currently, the Navy supports the other services by providing a jamming capability in the EA-6B Prowler. The Navy is slated to cease that support in 2008, leaving the Air Force to develop its own solution. The Navy will retire the EA-6B Prowler this decade, replacing it with the EA-18G Growler for a standoff jamming role, while the Air Force is adapting the B-52 for electronic warfare operations. Thus, the Air Force has initiated the B-52 Electronic Countermeasures Improvement (ECMI) program.

ECMI replaces the twin scopes of the ALQ-172 electronic countermeasures system with one scope that provides an electronic warfare officer with information on a threat.

“You can load this thing up with every threat known to man that the enemy has and you can fly,” Oathaut said. “The system can recognize that threat because you loaded the particular parameters on that threat into the system. It points at those threats and jams them, which allow aircraft to get in and out safely.”

The new system supports in-flight programming, which the old system could not. Once a B-52 crewmember can identify a threat, they can load information about it into the electronic countermeasures system. The system is faster and has much more memory than its predecessor. The standoff jamming capability allows the B-52 to take the Air Force lead in the U.S. Integrated Air Defense System, enabling the bomber to provide cover for other aircraft by jamming enemy detection systems.

A highly accurate receiving system coordinates the onboard jamming system. Boeing is upgrading the receiver through the Situation Awareness Defensive Improvement (SADI) program. SADI replaces the ALR-20A Electronic Countermeasures Receiver System and the ALR-46 radar warning receiver on the B-52.

There are two interlocking parts to the B-52’s future electronic warfare capabilities, Oathaut said. “SADI is the receiver. It’s the eyes and ears. The other half of that is the airborne electronic attack, or AEA, portion. We are putting a pod out where the fuel tip tank is. It’s actually the pod that hangs out toward the end of the wing. We are replacing it with a 30-foot pod filled with jamming antennas, highly accurate antennas. We can standoff and very accurately protect other aircraft in the theater.”

The Air Force plans to boost the network-centric warfare capabilities of the   B-52 with a $500-million program called Control Objectives for Net Centric Technology (CONeCT). CONeCT adds a client-server interface to the jet at all of its stations. CONeCT uses high-speed data antennas to send messages anywhere in the world. CONeCT can also receive commands. For example, it could retarget the B-52 weapon systems from outside instructions. No one has to input the coordinates of a target under these circumstances; rather, CONeCT receives new targets and automatically directs the fire of a JDAM weapon.

“You are expanding some of the roles because you are not a traditional bomber,” Oathaut said. “You are now part of a network of assets in the Air Force and DoD,  where you are sensing and sending data back to other people. You are almost an integrated solution on the battlefield. That is where the Air Force is really trying to drive this: the integrated battlefield. If you are not part of that battlefield, you are not going to play.”

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