The Boeing-built B-52 — colloquially known as the Big Ugly Fat Fellow, or BUFF — is one of the Air Force’s oldest airframes, but that isn’t stopping the service from constantly deploying its fleet, most recently in September to RAF Fairford in England. The legendary bomber will continue operations into the 2050s, Air Force leaders said.
“The aircraft was built in 1960. If you walk in the cockpit it looks like a 1960 cockpit. It flies like a 1960 airplane,” said Col. Robert Burgess, 307th Operations Group commander. Burgess spoke with journalist and Defense News contributor Jeff Bolton during a visit to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. “However, the avionics, the software, the weapon systems have to upgrade to meet the demands of the world.”
The Air Force is considering re-designating the BUFF as the B-52J after modifications. Here are some of the major changes coming to the bomber over the next few years:
A new radar
In July, Boeing announced it selected Raytheon to produce a new radar to replace its current Northrop Grumman AN/APQ-166 system, beating Northrop’s pitch for the AN/APG-83 scalable agile beam radar.
The new active electronically scanned array radar, which will be based on Raytheon’s APG-79 and APG-82, will increase the range at which the B-52 can detect targets, and it’ll increase the number of targets the bomber can locate, according to Raytheon.
“When we have ancient technology downstairs, it makes our life a little bit more difficult — especially with the weapon systems that require us to use a radar,” said Lt. Rebecca Halla, a B-52 weapons system operator at Barksdale. “Getting that upgrade not only is going to allow us to be better at that, but it gives us new capabilities with new weapons.”
As part of the contract, Raytheon will work with prime contractor Boeing to replace the radar and radome, as well as putting in new displays, said Michael Riggs, Boeing’s B-52 radar modernization program manager. The initial contract funds the program through its critical design review, which will wrap up in 2021. The first ground and flight tests could occur as early as 2023.
New computers and communications
Full-color LCD displays, updated computers and several new communications links are also on the way through the Combat Network Communication Technology, or CONECT, program. The upgrade will allow the B-52 to stream a real-time feed that provides intelligence and updates to the mission plan.
So far, 60 of the 76 aircraft have received modifications, said Alan Williams, deputy B-52 program element monitor at Air Force Global Strike Command.
The Air Force is also adding Link 16 to the B-52, which is one of the last of the service’s aircraft to get that NATO-standard communications link, said Scot Oathout, Boeing’s bombers program director. The company is currently designing that modification, with flight tests scheduled for mid-2020. Adding a data link for the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System will follow.
Capt. Eric Nelson, a B-52 instructor pilot and weapons officer, pointed to the communications upgrades as especially important to the B-52’s ability to connect to other platforms.
“No fight is a self-contained fight,” he said. “The B-52 interoperates with many aircraft across the platform; and even in the nuclear mission, it still [does] not go it alone. You have requirements, and the new upgrades are going to allow us to better communicate in a digital world where before we were heavily relying upon line-of-sight analog communication.”
The B-52 can be armed with an array of nuclear and conventional weaponry, and it’s set to take on some of the Air Force’s most advanced munitions.
This June, the service disclosed that the B-52 had carried a hypersonic missile on flight tests. The weapon, known as the AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, did not contain explosives and was not launched. Instead, the service used the flight to gather data about its impact on the B-52’s flight envelope.
The B-52 is also slated to get the Long Range Standoff Missile currently in development. LRSO will replace the AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile, which can be outfitted with either a nuclear or conventional warhead.
Along with new weapons, the B-52 is getting upgrades to its conventional rotary launcher that will double the number of weapons the aircraft can launch from its internal bay. The Air Force began testing modifications to the launcher earlier this year, according to information released by the service in February.
“The Conventional Rotary Launcher has a high power draw, so an aircrew could only power up four munitions at a time without risking blowing circuit breakers in mid-flight,” Maj. Jason McCargar, a 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron unit project officer, said in a news release. “With this upgrade, it can now have eight ready at once.”
And maybe more …
The Air Force is brainstorming how it should modernize the BUFF’s defensive systems, particularly its electronic warfare system. The service is in the process of a “form, fit, function replacement” for its current ALQ-172 electronic countermeasures system, or ECM, which will help solve problems with obsolescence and increase reliability without providing a capability upgrade, said Williams.
“That will allow us to then sustain the existing capability with modern computers, modern backplanes, modern computer boards inside the box,” he said. “That leaves us with some empty space that if, at some future time, Global Strike Command wishes to upgrade the ECM capability of the B-52, they would have space to do it in.”
The Air Force is on contract for the first two of about 10 boxes that comprise the electronic countermeasures system, and another two boxes will likely go under contract in September, he said.
Although the Air Force has discussed a full-scale replacement for the ALQ-172, Williams said the cost could amount to billions of dollars and may not be worth it, depending on how the aircraft will operate in the future.
“The B-52 is considered to be a standoff platform,” he said. “Current thinking is it would not go into a high-density threat area, and therefore the need for upgrading the electronic warfare system is not as demanding as some of the other demands to upgrade the B-52.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.