By Tom Squitieri, Talk Media News
WASHINGTON — When the first B-52 bomber was rolled out in 1954, then Air Force Chief of Staff General Nathan Twining had what he thought was merely a timely observation.
On that March day Twining said, “the long rifle was the great weapon of its day. Today this B-52 is the long rifle of the air age.”
It turned out to be prescient.
The long rifle dominated warfare for almost a century. Now, with major upgrades underway for the B-52, it is also likely to reach a similar century mark of dominance.
The B-52 has established itself as one of the greatest weapons of its time, both in dealing blows to America’s adversaries abroad as well as fending off foes on Capitol Hill and the aeronautics industry. Now it will be pampered with new engines, new radar and other enhancements to keep it viable, vibrant, and vicious.
“Its engineering was to be a very tough airplane, designed a few years after World War Two,” Maj. Gen. Andrew Gebara, director of Strategic Plans, Programs and Requirements, Headquarters Air Force Global Strike Command, said in an interview.
“There is this sense of legacy,” he said. “We are doing things that people’s grandfathers did, their fathers did, and their daughters will do.”
The B-52 joins the land-based Minutemen ICBM missiles and the Trident nuclear submarine as one of the Three Musketeers in the U.S. nuclear triad.
The B-52 was first delivered as an atomic-bomb carrier capable of blasting the Soviet Union. It carried out extensive bombing campaigns during the Vietnam war and was used in the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts, Afghanistan, and against ISIS.
It has also been the mother ship for air-launching experimental aircraft, such as the X-15 and the X-43.
It also had a tail gunner until 1991. The last shoot-down of an enemy plane was a MiG-21 on Dec. 24, 1972.
The Air Force plans to purchase over 600 new engines for its fleet of 76 B-52s, ensuring that the eight-engine so-dubbed “Big Ugly Fat Fella” can fly on to 2060 or beyond. That means the B-52 will outlast both the B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit stealth bombers.
The new engines will be the third significant upgrade to the B-52 in a short time frame. A major upgrade just concluding inserts a digital backbone into the B-52, greatly enhancing targeting capabilities.
Additionally, there is the “1760 in the Bay,” which is the wiring of the B-52 bomb bay allowing modern weapons releases internally. That is the equivalent of adding 22 B-52s of firepower to the Air Force through smart upgrades, Air Force personnel boast.
While the new engines are to be less noisy and expensive to operate, the real gauge is fuel efficiency. According to the request for proposal, the new engines will stretch the B-52’s current 8,800-mile range by another 20 to 40 percent, resulting in a new un-refueled range of up to 12,320 miles. That’s means a B-52 could reach any spot on Earth without refueling.
“We have been able to innovative with it,” Gebara said. “It probably would not have survived to (only) do the thing it was originally built to do. That is why it was a success and continues to do well.
“Day to day there are thousands of young Americans crawling all over the airplane to keep it flying,” he said. “It is not easy work.”
Gebarra said changes fall into three categories: “must-dos, need to do and nice to have.”
“In the current budget environment, nice to have may not make it,” he said. He said “must-do” is if you don’t do it, it won’t fly, while “needs to do” is you cannot do the mission without it.
The engines are a “must do.” A new radar new cruise missile was a “need to do.” A “nice to have” was an update sought last year which would bring in an Infrared defense system that would allow in air reset at medium altitude to better defend against surface-to-air missiles systems; it was not pursued, he said.
Proposals for the new engines started coming back to the Air Force in July, Gebarra said. The next steps should occur in spring of 2021.
“We are not just succeeding in one program but in two or three,” he said. “So what we tell our staff members, you are not designing the plane or dealing with tomorrow (but) how to (arrange) its success for the future.”
(Photo: A B-52H Stratofortress takes off from a flightline on Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, Nov. 21, 2019 / U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jesse Jenny)