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Air Force Wants, But Can't Afford, New B-52 Engines

The Air Force wants new engines for its venerable B-52 Stratofortress bomber fleet, but there's no money in the budget to pay for them, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson said Tuesday.

Proposals for replacing the eight Pratt & Whitney TF33 engines on the B-52s, which burn about 3,000 gallons of fuel an hour, have been around the Pentagon for years. Replacement "makes great sense," Wilson said. "If we had it in our budget, we'd buy it, but we don't have it."

Wilson was responding to questions at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday from Rep. Ralph Abraham, a Louisiana Republican, who said that new engines would increase the B-52s' range by about 30 percent and boost loiter time over targets by 150 percent.

The general agreed and confirmed that new engines would also boost fuel efficiency and lower maintenance costs. "Operationally, it makes great sense," he said. "If we had the money, we'd do it."

Despite the budget problem, the Air Force has sent out requests for information (RFI) to engine manufacturers about coming up with replacements for the TF33 engines.

Wilson said an Air Force team is exploring the possibility of "third-party financing."

Two years ago, Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, described third-party financing for Defense News: "The idea is in a public-private partnership, somebody funds the engine and then we pay them back over time out of the fuel savings, which are generated out of the new engines."

Current estimates on the more than 70 B-52s in the fleet have them flying until 2040 or possibly 2050, depending on the development of the next-generation Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider bomber.

However, B-52 retirement plans have been scrapped several times previously. The planes supposedly were headed to the boneyard in the 1990s as Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bombers came online, but the skyrocketing costs of the B-2s cut planned deliveries from 132 aircraft to 21.

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