For a plane that's now being flown by the original crews' grandchildren, the B-52 is still going strong. For its latest upgrade, Boeing has installed a new weapons bay launcher that will allow the venerable bomber to carry smart weapons inside and reduce fuel consumption.
When the B-52 entered service in the 1950s, launching its main weapons was very simple; it opened the bomb bay doors and the bombs slid out of their racks. Sixty years later, the B-52's conventional arsenal of "dumb" iron bombs has given way to a suite of laser-guided munitions, cruise missiles, and an assortment of stand-off and smart weapons. As a result, the bomb bay has become something like a cross between a revolver and a vending machine, with a rotating cradle that allows the pilot to select particular weapons and move them into launch position automatically.
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The problem is that the older weapons launchers weren't one-size-fits-all, so GPS-guided smart weapons, for example, had to be carried on hard points on the wing, which greatly increased drag while reducing mission flexibility. Boeing is seeking to correct this with a new prototype launcher, which is has installed in a B-52 for testing.
According to Boeing, the new launcher will allow the bomber to carry the smart weapons inside the bomb bay, which means that 50 percent more of the weapons can be carried with greater flexibility. In addition, the company says that this allows the B-52 to fly with a "clean" wing. That is, with no weapons visible on the outside of the hull. This will result in a 15 percent fuel savings, which will increase mission range, and will provide the US Air Force with an intelligence advantage because hostile observers won't have any clue as to the plane's payload.
The first of the launchers was installed on December 17. Three prototypes have been delivered so far, and Boeing and the Air Force are conducting tests at Edwards Air Force Base, California until March. The current upgrade allows the B-52 to carry the Joint Strike Munition with later upgrades to include the Joint Air to Surface Stand-Off Missile and the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy.
"This upgrade allows us to provide better close air support for Army personnel on the ground and future increments improve our strategic attack capability, a cornerstone of the B-52," says Captain Ryan Hefron, B-52 pilot with the U.S. Air Force 419th Flight Test Squadron. "Being able to go and perform long-range strikes on night one of an operation and carrying an additional eight cruise missiles in the bay is huge."
The video below introduces the new rotary weapons bay upgrade.