An old plane learns new tricks

Date:20 March 2012 Tags:,

America’s newest, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles will be carried by an aircraft already more than 50 years old, if the country’s air force’s strategy proceeds as planned. The US Air Force has been eager to build a long-range bomber to carry nukes, preferably one that can evade radar while closing in on targets. But that programme is languishing – officials have not even decided if the new planes will be piloted, robotic, or optionally manned – and, in the meantime, the B-52 Stratofortress will fill the gap. The tactic: have the B-52 fire a new air-launched cruise missile far from the target and let the missile, not the plane, defeat any advanced air defences. The B-52s tasked with this mission will fly until at least 2040, representing nearly a century of active duty. The airframes and engines will remain the same, but the birds will be upgraded with new hardware (as well as with the nuclear brawn) to extend their service lives. – Joe Pappalardo

1. Brakes
Out: Nearly obsolete brakes installed in the 1960s.
In: Newly designed antiskid brakes – like antilock brakes found in cars, only massive – to aid take-offs and landings.

Scheduled: 2013

2. Weapons bay
Out: Unguided bombs stacked in its belly, and smart bombs dangling from external pylons.
In: Upgrades that allow the B-52 to drop smart munitions from inside its belly. They will be mounted on a rotary launcher, which increases weapons payload by 33 per cent.

Scheduled: 2015

3. Cockpit
Out: Vintage radios used to pass weapon and flight information to other aircraft and ground forces.
In: A digital communication “backbone” that will let B-52 crews share data rapidly – for instance, to provide pilots in combat with updates on target co-ordinates.

Scheduled: 2014

4. Radar
Out: Antiquated radar, created in the 1960s and upgraded in the 1980s.
In: Modern radar, likely adapted from systems currently used by military aircraft.

Scheduled: 2013