Air Force Offers First Details Of Future Plans For An Upgraded B-52J Bomber
In addition to new engines, the updated aircraft could have an improved cockpit, enhanced flight systems, defensive gear, sensors, and more.
As the U.S. Air Force moves closer to starting a major re-engining program for its B-52H Stratofortresses, it is reportedly considering adding in additional upgrades to ensure the bombers will remain combat capable through at least 2050. These updates could include improvements to the iconic plane’s avionics, defensive suite, sensors, ejection systems, and flight data recorder, with the resulting aircraft receiving the new designation B-52J.
Aviation Week’s Aerospace Daily & Defense Report was the first to report on the developments, citing anonymous sources who attended a recent industry day event at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Tinker is where the Air Force conducts heavy depot maintenance on both the B-52 and B-1 bombers and is home to the shop in charge of maintaining the Stratofortress’ existing TF33 engines. There is also no indication that the proposed "B-52J" nomenclature is in any way related to previous concepts that used that moniker, such as the B-52 Stand-Off Jammer (SOJ) electronic warfare platform or unofficial B-52J arsenal plane concepts.
At present, the B-52J configuration is only a “potential future effort,” U.S. Air Force Colonel Lance Reynolds, the program manager for B-1 and B-52 systems within the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, told the gathering of industry representatives, according to Aviation Week’s sources. However, there had already been indications that the service was considering combining other upgrades with the re-engine effort.
A previous industry day briefing at Tinker in December 2017 said the Air Force wanted the new jet turbines for the B-52 to provide at least 400 kilovolt-amps (kVA), and potentially up to 500 kVA, to power a digital engine management system and unspecified future upgrades. More modern engines will just vastly improve the bomber’s fuel efficiency and range capabilities, which you can read about in more detail here.
Since the bombers would have to be out of service for an extended period of time to receive the new engines, taking that opportunity to install other new equipment would make good sense. The upgrades would also be logical additions given other recent upgrades that have already expanded the B-52's capabilities as a conventional arsenal plane, including a new internal "smart" rotary bomb rack that allows the aircraft to carry various precision guided munitions inside its bomb bay.
Though the B-52Hs have already received a number of cockpit and avionics updates over the years, just adding in a full glass cockpit would be a major boon for the bomber’s crew. Replacing the rows of old “steam gauge” analog dials with large multi-function displays could ease the workload on the pilots and provide for better integration and information sharing between the aircraft’s various flight management, navigation, and targeting systems and crew stations.
It would also help support the digital engine management arrangement, which could be part of a larger system to monitor the “health” of various systems and provide more detailed information to help warn ground crews and potential issues or help them isolate problems. The Air Force is already integrating similar systems into the glass cockpit on its Block 45 KC-135R aerial refueling tankers, many of which are of the same Cold War vintage of the B-52s.
Improved defensive systems will also be essential, especially against potential high-end opponents, if the Air Force intends to keep flying the bombers until 2050. These additions might include upgraded electronic warfare equipment, jamming resistant systems, and electronic support measures (ESM) to both jam hostile radars and just spot and geo-locate those threats, giving the bomber's crew enhanced situation awareness and help them avoid hazards to begin with.
The Air Force and the Navy are both increasingly interested in the possibility of adding hard-kill active protection systems with either physical interceptors or directed energy weapons to actually shoot down incoming missiles to a wide variety of aircraft, including tankers, transports, and other special mission platforms. Another possibility could be the addition of directional infrared countermeasures. A layered suite of new defenses could help the B-52 maintain an ability to operate in at least marginally contested environments or better defend itself against enemy fighter jets or other threats while acting as a arsenal plane from the very edge of a hostile integrated air defense network full of long-range surface-to-air missiles and powerful radars and other sensors.
The B-52J upgrades could also include relocating the AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod from its present position under the right wing to another spot on the aircraft. Moving this targeting system under the fuselage or into the would give it a better field of view. This could be a good opportunity to add in an improved version of the Sniper or additional sensors, such as day- and night-vision capable electro-optical or infrared video cameras with higher fidelity, as well.
It is not entirely clear what upgrades the Air Force might be considering for the B-52’s ejection system. Aviation Week reported that this would involve “an ejection seat,” but the aircraft already has those for each one of all of its crew members. There is a provision for a non-ejecting jump-seat in the main cockpit, so there is a possibility that the proposal could be to add an ejection capability in this position. This is unlikely since it would require extensive modifications to the forward fuselage, though.
The existing system is already complicated and two of the crew members would get ejected downward in the process, making it dangerous to do so at low altitudes, including during takeoffs and landings. The Air Force could also be considering some sort of modification to the latter portion of the egress arrangement to better ensure everyone can get out in an emergency. The plan may just be to upgrade the ejection seats in the four top-firing positions.
It’s similarly unclear what the driving factors might be for the proposed improvements to the flight data recorder, but B-52s have suffered notable accidents in the past decade, including a fiery crash at Andersen Air Force base on Guam in 2016 and an engine falling off another one of the bombers during a training flight in 2017. The U.S. military as a whole has seen a significant spike in aviation mishaps, as well, which could have prompted the Air Force to push for improved ways to gather information and assess the causes of incidents in general.
It’s not clear whether the Air Force has even a prospective timeline for when it could start and then finish a B-52J update program across the existing Stratofortresses. If the service did link the upgrade effort to the re-engine project, it could have a full fleet of rebuilt bombers by the mid-2030s.
However, the Air Force based that timeline for the re-engining program on the idea that it would award the first contracts for the work starting in the 2018 fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, 2018. While we don’t know exactly where in the contracting process the service is, it seems highly unlikely that it will be able to announce the deals and pick a winner within a little over a month.
What is clear is that the Air Force remains determined to fly the B-52s in combat for decades to come and the planes will need continuing upgrades to remain a viable tool in higher-risk contingency operations. It will be interesting to see how the bombers’ capabilities, and any future B-52J configuration, grow and evolve to meet those demands.
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