B-52 Bomber Upgrade on Track Despite Continuing Resolution, Air Force Says

A B-52 Stratofortress takes off from RAF Fairford, England, on Jan. 10, 2018. RAF Fairford serves as United States Air Forces in Europe's forward operating location for bombers. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride)
A B-52 Stratofortress takes off from RAF Fairford, England, on Jan. 10, 2018. RAF Fairford serves as United States Air Forces in Europe's forward operating location for bombers. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride)

The B-52 Stratofortress bomber will not be short-changed by the latest spending bill that President Donald Trump signed Friday in order to avoid a government shutdown.

While Pentagon officials last week said that the temporary continuing resolution (CR) will affect the venerable aircraft's readiness because a scheduled upgrade will be delayed over the course of the eight-week CR, the Air Force says the program's first milestone is still on track.

"The current continuing resolution that goes through Nov. 21, 2019, will have no impact on procurement of components for the B-52 Global Positioning System Interface Unit as the procurement of long lead items is planned for the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020, with production and installations beginning in late fiscal year 2021," the service said in a statement to Military.com on Tuesday.

Officials said the timing matters because this CR is not an extended stop-gap measure.

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On Friday, the Pentagon voiced concerns over the short-term CR because customarily, "CRs immediately ... disrupt major exercises and training events, affect readiness and maintenance, curtail hiring and recruitment actions, and adversely impact contracting negotiations."

"It would delay the implementation of new technology development and procurement in support of [the National Defense Strategy], such as the B-52 Global Positioning System Interface Unit Replacement [program]," the Defense Department said.

Officials said other programs likely to be affected include the Army's Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, as well as the Advanced Helicopter Training System (AHTS) for the Navy and Marine Corps. It is unclear whether those services have found workaround solutions for their programs.

The B-52 GPS IU is a critical interface between the aircraft GPS receiver and avionics to enable precision navigation and weapon delivery. Additionally, data from a Sniper Pod -- a sensor attached to the aircraft that provides improved long-range target detection and identification with high-resolution imagery for non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- also routes through the GPS IU.

The upgrade is set to cost $131 million, the Air Force said Tuesday. The service had no additional details regarding other programs potentially at risk during the CR.

The bomber has a long road ahead: The Air Force has already said the B-52 will keep flying well into the 2050s and perhaps beyond. But the less-nimble "BUFF," short for "Big Ugly Fat Fellow," will need a few other substantial upgrades to sustain it for that long.

Each Stratofortress needs its eight engines replaced, though it's unclear whether the entire 75-plane fleet will receive upgrades. The service estimates it will spend more than $1.3 billion on that project alone over the next five years, according to the Future Years Defense Program assessment.

But first, lawmakers are insisting that service officials nail down contract specifics before they provide funding.

In its version of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act legislation, the House Armed Services Committee in June outlined a measure that requires the Air Force to stipulate definitive conditions with defense companies before proceeding with a program. Lawmakers said they are concerned because the Air Force intends to use its Section 804 Authorities Middle Tier Acquisition law authority, which includes new practices that streamline the process and push decisions down to program officers, to expedite new engines for the aircraft.

Responding to the concerns, Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told Defense News in July that using Section 804 for the re-engining will get the service through the contract award process faster.

"I need a new engine and I have one path, which is the 804 path, which I can start a year and a half faster than I could the traditional path," he said. "I can't tell that warfighter [flying the B-52] I'm going slow because that's what others think is the best path. I can go fast, and I can do it with rigor and discipline."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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