The U.S. Air Force is in the early phases of a massive, fleet-wide technological upgrade of its B-52 bombers, giving the war-tested platform new electronics and an increased ability to carry weapons, service officials said.
Two distinct, yet interwoven B-52 modernization efforts will increase the electronics, communications technology, computing and avionics available in the cockpit while simultaneously configuring the aircraft with the ability to carry up to eight of the newest "J-Series" precision-guided weapons internally – in addition to carrying six weapons on each wing, said Eric Single, Chief of the Global Strike Division, Acquisition.
While most of the current inventory of B-52 bombers, a workhorse aircraft with a distinguished history, were initially fielded in the 1960’s, various upgrades over the years have kept the on-board technology current, Single explained.
The Air Force is quick to emphasize its now-in-development next-generation Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B, to be operational sometime during the 2020’s. At the same time, the service wants to be sure to maximize the usefulness of its inventory of B-52s for their remaining years.
“Their structure, service life and air frames are good until around 2040. They are built very strong structurally. This is not a structural modification, but upgrades to the capabilities and the avionics,” Single explained.
Single added that many of the B-52 air frames may hold up well beyond 2040, depending upon the level of use of the aircraft.
However, the current ongoing electronics and communications upgrade, called Combat Network Communications Technology, or CONECT, will bring a whole new capability to the fleet of B-52s.
“What it does it is it installs a digital architecture in the airplane,” Single explained. “Instead of using data that was captured during the mission planning phase prior to your take off 15 to 20 hours ago – you are getting near real time intelligence updates in flight.”
In particular, Single explained that the CONECT upgrades include software and hardware such as new servers, modems, radios, data-links, receivers and digital workstations for the crew.
Some of the individual elements include the ARC-210 Warrior, a beyond-line-of-sight software programmable radio able to transmit voice, data and information in real time between the B-52s and ground command and control centers.
“It is a software programmable radio. You can use it for voice but the big advantage is the digital data transfer capability,” said Single.
The radio allows for the transmission and receipt of data packets and files with updated intelligence, mapping or targeting information while the aircraft is in flight, Single explained.
“The crew gets the ability to communicate digitally outside the airplane which enables you to import not just voice but data for mission changes, threat notifications, targeting….all those different types of things you would need to get. The biggest capability is machine to machine transfer of that data. In the past, if you had a target change in flight you got it over the radio and you copied down the coordinates,” Single said.
Single explained that being able to update key combat-relevant information while in transit will substantially help the aircraft more effectively travel longer distances for missions, as needed.
“The key to this is that this is part of the long-range strike family of systems -- so if you take off out of Barksdale Air Force Base and you go to your target area, it could take 15 or 16 hours to get there. By the time you get there, all the threat information has changed,” said Single. “Things move, pop up or go away and the targeting data may be different.”
Mentioning the vast geographical expanses that characterize the Pacific theater, Single explained that the CONECT upgrades will help the aircraft adjust to the service’s broader “re-balance” to the Pacific.
Computer screens in the cockpit will provide digital moving maps of nearby terrain as well as graphics showing the aircraft’s flight path. Also, while not part of the CONECT upgrade, the plane's radar, the AN/APQ-166, is able to provide the crew with all-weather capability. The mechanically scanned array can provide a rendering of nearby terrain and also help connect the plane to an air-to-air refueling tanker in bad weather, Single explained.
The upgrades will also improve the ability of the airplane to receive key intelligence information through a data link called the Intelligence Broadcast Receiver. In addition, the B-52s will be able to receive information through LINK-16, a known high-speed digital data link able to transmit targeting and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or ISR information.
The CONECT effort, slated to cost $1.1 billion overall, will unfold over the next several years, Single explained. Funding for the CONECT upgrades for the first 30 B-52’s is currently in place and Air Force plans include subsequent upgrades of 10 B-52 upgrades per year in each of the next several years. Upgrades plans, budgets and timeframes for the remainder of the fleet beyond the initial 30 are still being determined, Single explained. The first eight CONECT upgrades for B-52s were put on contract this past March.
One analyst said the upgraded B-52s could provide essential precision-bombing capabilities over areas where the U.S. has already established air superiority or where there is little or no defenses against high-altitude bombers.
“You have an airframe that is fantastic and a classic for the ages. These upgrades are what the name of the game is – real time targeting information and being able to get a totally different task in flight. That is a break-through,” said Richard Aboulafia, Vice President of analysis at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy.
“High speed data links are the future. Net-centric warfare is all about harnessing off-board sensors, whether it comes from satellites or a [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System]. There is a constellation of targeting information available today.”
The Air Force is also making progress with a technology-inspired effort to increase the weapons payload for the workhorse bomber, Single added.
The 1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade, or IWBU, will allow the B-52 to internally carry up to eight of the newest "J-Series" bombs in addition to carrying six on pilons under each wing, he explained. The B-52 have previously been able to carry some bombs internally, but with the IWBU the aircraft will be able to internally house some of the most cutting edge precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, among others.
“It is about a 66 percent increase in carriage capability for the B-52, which is huge. You can imagine the increased number of targets you can reach, and you can strike the same number of targets with significantly less sorties,” said Single.
IWBU, which uses a digital interface and a rotary launcher to increase the weapons payload, is now finishing up the Technology Development phase and poised to move into the next phase of development this summer, he said.
The IWBU effort is expected to cost roughly $313 million, service officials said.