Old Dog, New Tech: B-52J Stratofortress strategic bomber’s Cutting-Edge Upgrades Face Headwinds  

The B-52J Stratofortress bomber upgrade, including new engines and radar, faces delays and cost increases. Initial operational capability is now pushed to 2033, but the modernized bomber is expected to remain in service until at least 2050.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The US B-52J Stratofortress strategic bomber, remotored and considerably updated, will enter service in fiscal year 2033, three years later than intended.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that a lack of finances delays the timely completion of the Critical Design Review (CDR) for the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program. This initiative involves fitting commercial Rolls-Royce F130-200 jet engines into the existing B-52H airframes. Rolls-Royce will build up to 608 engines for the 76 B-52H Stratofortress bombers fleet. The new engines have much fewer maintenance requirements and fuel consumption, resulting in increased range (reportedly up to 40%) and endurance in flight. Boeing is responsible for implementing the CERP.

CDR is a formal review determining whether the system design is complete enough to move to the production phase. However, the CDR will not occur until August 2025. This is a required stage before the production contract can be finalized; it involves formally awarding the contract to a specific business and establishing the terms, requirements, and production schedule.

As a result, the B-52J bombers’ Initial Operational Capability (IOC) with new engines has been pushed back to FY2033, three years later than planned. As defined internally by the US Air Force, the IOC status permits the B-52J’s first operation and limited deployment. During the IOC, the Air Force and Boeing will assess the B-52J’s performance, find flaws, and make modifications before reaching Full Operational Capability (FOC).

The delay is caused by the Air Force underestimating the funding required to finish detailed design tasks, such as integrating the F130-200 engines with new nacelles, pylons, and control systems.

According to the GAO, CERP program management wants to begin flight tests on the prototype about six months after the first Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) decision. The LRIP decision, which includes building the first series (likely one squadron) of B-52J bombers with new engines, is planned by the end of 2028. Limited production within LRIP is generally used to verify production processes and prepare for Full Rate Production (FRP).

Officials said that this method poses a cost risk, but they are ready to swap cost risk for timetable adherence, according to the GAO study. The concern is that if the prototype’s flight tests find problems, it will be essential to intervene in continuing manufacturing and make costly improvements. This is not an unusual process; for example, the LRIP for the F-35 Lightning II aircraft occurred concurrently with development. The Air Force feels that, because to recent breakthroughs in computer modeling and testing, the danger of concurrent development and production is low.

Meanwhile, the cost of the B-52 Radar Modernization Program (RMP), which entails replacing the B-52’s radar, has risen by 12.6% from the 2021 estimate, and the program has announced a cost overrun. The RMP cost was anticipated to be $2.34 billion in 2021, including development and procurement, but by the end of fiscal year 2023, it had grown to $2.58 billion.

The RMP’s goal is to replace the current analog APQ-166 radars, which are unreliable, obsolete, and out of parts, with modern APG-79V4 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars used on F/A-18E/F Super Hornet multi-role fighters and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. The APG-79V4 for the B-52J will be linked with the processor from the APG-82 radar, which is used in F-15EX multipurpose fighters.

The cost rise was attributed to the purchase of more test hardware, the hiring of professionals for three integration laboratories, the installation of test equipment, and other technological issues.

The new radar is projected to dramatically improve performance for both conventional and nuclear missions. It will not only improve crew situational awareness but also increase the B-52J’s combat potential by attaching to a reconnaissance strike pod. Both systems can set mutual targets and offer the crew integrated information. In addition, the bomber will acquire a new electronic warfare complex, with the radar employed offensively to jam opposing systems.

According to the GAO, the B-52’s LRIP has been pushed from the end of 2024 to spring 2025. Similar to the engines, testing will not be completed before the LRIP decision, which has typically resulted in costly changes.

The RMP will attain IOC in FY2027, far ahead of the CERP. However, the RMP and CERP programs are independent; the engine and radar will be installed separately. As a result, a two-phase designation for the joint upgrade was proposed: B-52I after radar installation and B-52J after adding new engines. However, the interim designation B-52I was dropped.

The B-52J will also receive upgraded navigation and communication systems, as well as structural improvements in critical places. The fleet of 76 B-52 bombers will then be operational until at least 2050.

But these aren’t the only updates. The AGM-181 LRSO (Long-Range Standoff) cruise missile with a nuclear payload, which will replace the AGM-86B ALCM (Air-Launched Cruise Missile) carried by a portion of the B-52 fleet, will become operational in 2030. The LRSO will become the primary weapon for both the B-52J and the stealthy B-21 Raider bombers.

The Air Force defines the LRSO as a missile designed to destroy strategic targets and capable of penetrating the most powerful integrated air defense systems “from a substantial distance as part of sustaining the Air Force’s global strike capabilities and the primary mission of strategic deterrence.” However, complete details of the LRSO have not been released.

The original estimate for a single LRSO was around $10 million, while the current estimate is $14 million.

In modern warfare, the B-52 has a limited chance of surviving over enemy territory, but its long range and cargo capacity make it an excellent carrier for large hypersonic missiles. The bomber can perform long-duration flight operations in a defined zone outside the range of hostile air defenses and deploy hypersonic missiles at will.


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