Mention the "B-52" to most people and they'll think of either an '80s pop group, a bad hair style, or an ancient bomber that's a relic of the Cold War. The name conjures up a vintage warplane featured in grainy footage from the Cuban Missile Crisis which saw it's heyday when Slim Pickens rode an H-bomb from its belly like a bucking bronco in 1964's Dr. Strangelove. What may surprise people is to learn that in the second decade of the 21st century, the B-52 fleet still provides most of the third leg of the American nuclear deterrence triad (the other two being submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles) and that it plays a major part in American conventional warfare strategy. Now the US Defense Department is upgrading the venerable USAF B-52 heavy bomber to allow it to remain a major part of the American arsenal until 2044.
Over the years, the B-52 was found to be a remarkable example of over-engineering and by replacing and upgrading various subsystems as they wore out or became obsolete, the bomber continued to carry out its mission. These upgrades included such things as GPS navigation, targeting pods, electronic countermeasures, heavy adopter beams to carry heavier armaments, and rotating racks allowing it to carry air-launched cruise missiles, just to name a few.
Other upgrades are the installation of the 1760 databus that will allow the B-52H to carry the latest smart weapons as well new stand-off missiles. Also included is a study to replace the aircraft's radar system, which dates back to the 1960s, with a modern one.
According to US Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, Commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, there's still a "lot of life left" in the B-52H and it maintains the capacity to carry out it's duel nuclear/conventional roles "across the conflict spectrum."
The U.S. Air Force says that they have "plenty of engines" to replace any of the eight each bomber carries and by upgrading systems as they wear out or go obsolescent, it's believed the B-52H can be kept flying and up to standard. By 2044 however, the majority of B-52 fleet will have logged so many flight hours that the wings will no longer be able to sustain the fatigue after 84 years of service and the airframes will have to be retired.
Of course by then the bomber force may have changed beyond recognition with manned bombers replaced with unmanned and "manned optional" machines that don't require a crew. It will be a world of robot and semi-robot warplanes where the B-52 is the fading echo of an earlier time. When the last B-52 heads for a museum, it will be the end of an era in more ways than one.
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