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Not your grandfather's B-52


The Air Force wants its B-52s to keep flying until 2040, but the airplanes of that era won't look like the ones we all remember from "Dr. Strangelove" -- or even the bombers flying today.

According to an official story from the weekend, Lt. Gen. Jim Kowalski, the head of Global Strike Command, says the B-52 is set to receive a round of upgrades that will help both the airmen inside each one and also the top-level commanders moving them around on their maps. Even if that commander's suit is a darker shade of blue:

These upgrades are integral to ensuring the B-52H is both effective and able to fully integrate with other services, as envisioned in the Air Sea Battle concept, according to command officials.

Among the upgrades is a guided "smart weapon" capability in the B-52H's internal weapons bay, which provides a 66 percent increase in guided weapons payload. Another current program is an upgrade to the latest Advanced Targeting Pod, which will increase the B-52H effectiveness when performing close air support and other missions.

One of the test aircraft at Edwards AFB also featured an improved on-board communications upgrade called Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT). The CONECT program brings the B-52H from the analog into the digital age, according to command officials, providing an invaluable data link over which to pass mission and threat data.

With the new defense strategy placing a greater emphasis on the Pacific, it's really important that our bombers are fully networked and integrated with the joint force, Kowalski said.

The mind races at the possibilities -- a carrier strike group commander with B-52s integrated into her air plan? "Sensor netting," as we've heard so much about, that lets a commander in Australia see what a bomber is tracking over the North Pacific? You can start to hear Navy Undersecretary Robert Work's voice explaining how, of all things, the Air Force could help increase the effective size of the Navy's fleet, along with his beloved P-8s, BAMS, E-2Ds and so on.

Part of the problem with imagining the future for this kind of integration, however, is a lack of clarity about exactly what scenarios U.S. planners are using to build it. This is where D.C.-based China fear-mongering gets a little frustrating, because it usually ends with people frowning severely, or arching their eyebrows, rather than spelling out what they believe would be involved with a potential future crisis.

Are American forces going to fight another Battle of Coral Sea with Chinese naval forces? Are they going to encounter a wall of "anti-access/area denial" missile and submarine attacks if they cross a keep-out "line of death?" Are they going to have to eject Chinese invaders from Taiwan? All three? Are American forces going to attack the Chinese mainland?

All that planning is on the high side, so it can be tough trying to put Kowalski's comments into a larger context. But whatever Pentagon planners have in their red-edged briefing documents, this story makes it clear they'll be counting on the 60 year-old B-52s to play a key part in it.

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