October 13, 2020

BUFF Up

The nearly 60-year-old B-52 will be the workhorse of the Air Force’s bomber fleet another 30 years at least, reinvigorated with upgrades to boost its range, power, sensors, and bomb-carrying capacity. Once complete, Air Force Global Strike Command’s  improvements to its 76 B-52s will provide the equivalent of an extra 22 bombers’ worth of weapon-carrying capacity.

The multitude of upgrades are already well underway and will continue into the late 2020s, providing aircraft built in the 1950s and ’60s—the last B-52 was built in 1963—with modern engines and radars, new capability to carry more smart weapons internally, new communications and connectivity, and the ability to deliver the most advanced missiles in USAF’s inventory. B-52s will also remain a key part of the American nuclear deterrent.  

The changes are significant enough that the upgraded bombers could be redesignated from B-52H to “B-52H+” or “B-52J.” A new radar will mean a new nose, perhaps without the electro-optical blisters on the radome made obsolete by wing-mounted Sniper or Litening targeting pods. The aircraft’s twin-engined pods on the swept-wing bomber will also look different, and the five-person crew will likely be reduced to four.

The Air Force has already spent some $1.4 billion in this round of B-52 upgrades and will invest another $3.8 billion over the next five years—and considerably more in the years that follow. Specifics are not yet available.

“It is going to … be a very different B-52 than what I flew as a lieutenant,” said Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Gebara, director of strategic plans, programs, and requirements for Air Force Global Strike Command in a September Air Force Magazine interview. In addition to its upgrades, the B-52 will also be able to launch the Air Force’s most advanced missiles, the new AGM-181 Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile and the hypersonic AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).