(Washington, D.C.) Will the B-52 fly forever? What about the B1-B? The Air Force is clear that it does not have enough bombers to meet combatant commander demand, yet the service operates several decades-old legacy bombers and there is only one new platform now emerging .. the B-21.
Perhaps this is why the planned number of B-21s for the Air Force has jumped up to at least 145, if not more.
The B-21 may be such a versatile bomber that it succeeds in meeting the mission requirements otherwise performed by multiple aircraft.
The B-21 may be the only newly arriving bomber platform for the Air Force, yet it will not fly alone, because it will be joined for decades into the future by the newly upgraded yet classic B-52 bomber.
B-52 Bomber Modernization
Certainly seems realistic that the time-tested Vietnam-era B-52 bomber could serve for as long as 100 years, given the scope and reach of longstanding upgrades to the platform.
The aircraft, once known for massive carpet bombing along high-value enemy target areas, is now a cyber-resilient, EW-armed, hypersonic-missile firing, digitally-networked bomber equipped with a new generation of air dropped bombs and precision-guidance cruise missiles.
It could be called a transformation, so significant in fact that the classic B-52 bomber may ultimately fly for a century.
The upgrade program, which is multifaceted, is based upon the fundamental premise that the decades old airframes themselves are sturdy, strong and extremely viable moving into the future. Some reinforcement and maintenance is crucial for the structures, but Air Force weapons developers say they have withstood the test of time.
Apart from the airframes, today’s B-52 bomber is an altogether different aircraft than it was at its inception, given the massive and comprehensive scope of the upgrades.
The B-52 is equipped with an entirely modern, cutting-edge and forward-looking series of new technologies intended to catapult the plane into the modern threat environment. The upgrades have spanned decades and encompassed such a wide sphere of systems and technologies there are almost too many to cite.
Years ago, the Air Force embarked upon sweeping upgrades to the aircraft’s communication system intended, among other things, to enable more real-time, in-flight intelligence gathering.
B-52 Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT)
The system, called Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT), brings a digital backbone to the B-52 able to bring crucial mission details such as new target information, terrain data, enemy activity or of course intelligence.
Interestingly, an Air Force report from as far back as 2016, when CONECT was first being installed, quotes a senior Air Force weapons developer as saying "CONECT maintains a common operating picture between crew stations on the plane, so it is like installing a local area network line in your home. All the screens in the plane are wired to pick up the same channel.” With CONECT, pilot crews do not need to solely rely upon pre-programmed targeting and mission information, but can rather receive crucial real-time updates en route to targets and adjust to changing threat circumstances.
B-52 Internal Weapons Bay (IWBU)
Of course the B-52 is also being re-engined, a much discussed and significant performance enhancement to the aircraft. The most substantial or impactful upgrade, however, may be the multi-year transition to a new Internal Weapons Bay for the B-52, an adjustment which greatly expands the weapons-carrying capacity of the platform.
The new IWBU effort, which has unfolded over a period of many years in increments, adds an ability to fire laser-guided JDAMS, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and the JASSM Extended Range. The weapons expansion also includes an ability to fire the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) and MALD-J jammer variant.
In a paradigm-changing fashion, The B-52 is also preparing to fire hypersonic weapons as well, a development which will enable high-speed, high-altitude attack at five times the speed of sound. As part of the preparation to be armed with hypersonic weapons, the Air Force completed a simulated shot of an AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon at a range of 600 nautical miles.
Although the B-52 may fly forever alongside the B-21, the same cannot be said for the aging B1-B bomber.
The planned phase-out retirement of the decades-old Air Force B1-B bomber introduces some interesting dynamics for the future of the services’ bomber force, which leaders say is already massively depleted well below what is needed to meet growing threats.
General Timothy Ray, Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, has consistently said that the service suffers from a bomber shortage given the small number of B-2s and aging B1-Bs.
While the service has in recent years configured the B1-B to fire hypersonic weapons in a clear effort to extend the platform’s service life, several upgrades to the aircraft can only bring the older aircraft so far. The service is phasing out the B1-B in coming years, yet in a staggered way as B-21s continue to arrive.
B-52s, B-21s and B1-Bs: The Future
The question then becomes, will the timeless B-52 and B-21 be the platforms to propel the force into the future? If so, what does that mean in terms of tactics, strategies and service bomber-fleet approaches.
One immediate factor to consider is the progress, pace and enthusiasm related to the arrival of the B-21 stealth bomber.
The fact that there are only 20 B-2s, coupled with the reality that the B-52 and B-21 will be the key aircraft to sustain the Air Force bomber fleet, may explain why there is a continued refrain among observers, senior service leaders an and members of Congress asking to increase and even accelerate B-21 production.
Part of the mission gap created by the B1-B departure may be picked up by the many capabilities of the now arriving B-21. While of course most details are not available for obvious security reasons, it would not be surprising if the B-21 were able to integrate new levels of sensing, data analysis, weapons guidance, bomb delivery, computer processing and targeting. This means it seems within the realm of the possible that a B-21 could pick up a large number of missions now performed by B1-B.
At the same time, while the current long term plan may appear to largely incorporate the B-21 and the B-52, the B1-B is not disappearing quickly. The service is still working on a multi-year upgrade and refinement program for the B1-B which includes configuring its weapons bay for hupersons, and giving the plane improved weapons capacity, avionics, engines and communications systems.
A demonstration several years ago, for example, showed that the B-1 could increase its bomb-carrying load from 24 up to 40 in the internal weapons bay.
The service has also been giving the aircraft a new Bomb Rack Unit upgrade which increases the B1-B’s carriage capacity of 500-pound weapons by as much as 60-percent.
In recent years, the Air Force has also been giving the B1-B a new Fully Integrated Targeting Pod which integrates targeting controls with video feeds and other intelligence data. Then there is also a new Integrated Battle Station for the aircraft which enables greater in-flight data sharing such as target or navigational adjustments.
The B1-B can hit altitudes of 60,000 feet, hit speeds of MACH 1.25 and fire multiple air-dropped JDAM bombs such as the GBU-31, GBU-38, GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb and GBU-54. The B1-B dropped a lot of bombs over Afghanistan and Iraq after having its combat debut in Operation Desert Fox in 1998
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.