B-52H pair flying above the Baltic Sea, October 23, 2019.
Despite a record age, long-range Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bombers remain the basis of strategic aviation USA. Moreover, they will maintain this status for the next several decades. The current plans of the Air Force provide for the continued operation of such equipment, but this requires various measures.
The future of long-range aviation
At the end of February, Congressional Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. David Naom spoke at a Congressional hearing. He spoke about the current state of affairs in strategic aviation, and also revealed current plans in this area. According to them, the construction of completely new aircraft does not preclude the continued operation of record-breaking old ones.
In the long term, the US Air Force plans to build a mixed fleet of long-range bombers. Its most important component will continue to be the B-52H, which should once again be modernized. It is also planned the production of new Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider aircraft, which will completely replace the two types of equipment. In the near future, the process of decommissioning the obsolete B-1B will begin, and the inconspicuous B-2A will remain in service for now.
According to D. Naom, the 76 B-52H aircraft available in the Air Force still have sufficient resources and can continue to serve. Individual aircraft will remain in units until their century. However, this requires timely modernization of equipment. Need to update electronic equipment, powerplant, etc.
The long-awaited engines
The combat B-52Hs each have eight Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-103 turbojet engines. These products have been developed since the late fifties using the technologies of that time. A stock of ready-made engines and spare parts was created, allowing to continue to operate until now. Back in the seventies, such motors were recognized as obsolete and in need of replacement. At the same time, the first remotorization project was launched. However, for economic and other reasons, these works were not completed. In the future, new unsuccessful attempts were made to modernize the power plant.
Last year, another similar project was launched - the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program ("Program for replacing engines with commercial"). The Air Force has approached General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney with a proposal to develop preliminary designs. In May of this year, a formal request for proposals was sent out, to which responses are expected by July 22 The next months will be spent on evaluating projects, and in June next year, the Air Force plans to sign a contract for the supply of serial motors.
While the technical staff works with the Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-103 engines, but in a few years they will have to master new products
According to the terms of the B-52 CERP program, bombers should receive engines with a thrust of at least 8-9 tons and high rates of efficiency. It is proposed to maintain four twin-engine engine nacelles, which will do without glider processing. To further reduce the cost of remotorization, it is proposed to use engines of "commercial" types. Participating companies offer three options for motors: one ready-made and two promising modifications of serial products.
The Air Force is going to upgrade all 76 B-52H bombers of the combat personnel and reserve. This requires more than 600 engines, and a stock of finished products and spare parts will also be created. Design work on CERP will last until 2023-24, after which the production and installation of new motors will begin. Direct modernization of aircraft will be carried out by Boeing. The modernization of the entire park will be completed in 2035.
Over several decades of operation, the B-52H managed to change several sets of target equipment and a number of generations of aircraft weapons. Now a new modernization of this kind is being carried out, as a result of which the aircraft will improve its combat capabilities.
On April 12, 2019, the Air Force and Boeing signed another contract for the modernization of the armament complex of the B-52H and B-1B bombers. The work will last exactly 10 years, its cost is $ 14,3 billion. Official reports mentioned that the project will be carried out according to the Flexible Acquisition & Sustainment Tool. We are talking about increasing combat stability, expanding combat capabilities and increasing combat readiness.
However, other details were not provided, and the key features of the project remain unknown. Later reports by officials as a whole did not change the situation, and so far you have to rely only on fragmentary reports, ratings, etc.
In the foreseeable future, long-range models, including new classes. Obviously, their operation will not do without the B-52H. Moreover, the development and testing of new products depend on old aircraft.
A year ago, on June 12, 2019, one of the cash B-52H became a flying laboratory for preliminary tests of the promising hypersonic aeroballistic missile AGM-183A ARRW. At that time, it was only about the transportation of a prototype, but in the near future the bomber will start launching full-fledged prototypes.
AGM-86B ALCM cruise missiles with external suspension
New information on this subject appeared in the May issue of Air Force Magazine in an interview with the head of the US Strategic Command. General Timothy Ray said the B-52H military aircraft will undergo modernization, which will ensure the use of hypersonic weapons. Currently, only two bombers have such capabilities, used at Edwards Air Force Base for testing. In the near future, six more will join them.
The increase in the number of flying laboratories is associated with the specifics of the designated test program. It is distinguished by its “aggressiveness,” which requires the use of additional aircraft and an increase in the number of personnel. Such processes will continue for approx. 3-5 years, until the end of development work.
Thus, the US Air Force is still not going to abandon its oldest combat aircraft and intend to keep them in service for the maximum possible time. Regular B-52H Stratofortress modernization programs are being offered, and ratings for a possible centenary in service are being heard again.
It is not known whether the B-52H will survive in service until the fifties and sixties, but the chances of this are quite high. Thus, the B-52 CERP remotorization program will be carried out until 2035 and will significantly extend the service life. And it is unlikely that the Pentagon will decide to abandon the improved fuel-efficient bombers within 10-15 years after the completion of CERP.
The first export flight of the AGM-183A rocket
Another aspect of the CERP program should also be noted. Previous projects of this kind did not give real results, but they spent time and money. Another failure in this area will be a serious blow to the image of aircraft manufacturers, the Air Force and long-range aviation. First of all, this will lead to additional difficulties for the Strategic Command in “knocking out” funding for new programs.
With the modernization of the B-52H, in addition to an increase in flight performance and economic characteristics, an increase in combat qualities is expected due to new on-board equipment and weapons. Despite the subsonic speed, high visibility for the radar and other shortcomings, the B-52H will remain a convenient and efficient platform for weapons, including promising hypersonic missiles.
Thanks to this, the B-52H will continue to serve for several decades. Until the end of the twenties, the first production B-21s will join them, and by that time the decommissioning of other bombers will begin. Despite its considerable age, the B-52H is not yet out of date - but a variety of efforts and modernization projects are required to maintain the required condition and potential.