USAF strategic bombers gearing up for the future threat

Photo: B-1B Lancers sit on the flightline during sunset at Al Udeid Air Base. USAF/TSgt Ted Nichols


Against a backdrop of resurgent Russian Long-Range Aviation — Moscow’s equivalent — and an expanding Chinese bomber force, Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) is a force under pressure. In mid-2019, it was reported that only six B-1B Lancers were fully ‘combat capable’, and its aging B-52Hs — set to remain in service for the foreseeable future — are desperate for a raft of upgrades to retain credibility.

Still regarded as being cutting-edge, the B-2A Spirit is marking 30 years since the type’s first flight, and the USAF’s youngest bombers are slated to be replaced by the brand new Northrop Grumman B-21 — a bomber whose design addresses the deep flaws of the Spirit, meaning the latter looks set to be retired as soon as practicable to make way for its stealthy successor.

Combat Aircraft’s forthcoming October issue features a free 28-page supplement detailing the USAF strategic bomber force, while also looking back at the bombers of the past including the B-58 Hustler.

Improving the force

While the USAF is setting out its stall to underpin future strategic bomber capabilities, it is a force that is currently at a low ebb. Former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in 2018 that future plans are in line with President Trump’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, prioritizing long-term competition with China and Russia and restoring the readiness of the force, increasing lethality, while cost-effectively modernizing.

This is currently focused on retirement of the B-1B Lancer and B-2A Spirit to make way for the B-21. The FY 2019 budget request allocated funding to upgrade its B-52H fleet under the so-called ‘Bomber Vector’, to partner it with the B-21 and retire the B-1 and B-2, which were previously expected to remain in service until 2040 and 2058, respectively.

The decision-making appears to have been based on mission capable rates, through-life support costs and spares supply chains — the B-52 offers an affordable roadmap to lower and less complex operational costs than its stablemates despite its age. The USAF has also chosen to retain the B-52 because of its versatile payload and mission adaptability as well as its ability to carry new weapons such as the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile. Around 75 B-52s will remain in service until at least 2050, with a $2.2-billion package of upgrades including new engines and an advanced radar.

The USAF plans to quadruple the external bomb load of the Stratofortress via a new external weapon pylon. The service hopes to increase the load carried on the B-52’s two external pylons from 10,000lb (4,536kg) to 40,000lb (18,144kg). Designed in 1959, the current Improved Common Pylon (ICP) is capable of carrying weapons weighing up to 5,000lb (2,268kg). A new pylon is planned under an accelerated Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase that will field a replacement capable of carrying multiple weapons in the 5,000 to 20,000lb category. It would enable the B-52H to carry any of the air-launched munitions in the USAF inventory, including the 22,000lb (9,979kg) GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB) bomb.

The most important elements in the planned upgrade center on the provision of new engines and radars. The air force considers the B-52H’s TF33 turbofan engine to be ‘inefficient and [of] limited capability compared to modern commercially available engines’ as well as being ‘costly and manpower-intensive to maintain’.

The USAF has conducted 13 studies examining B-52 re-engining options since 1996. Initially, attention was focused on replacing the eight original 17,000lb thrust Pratt & Whitney TF33-PW-103 turbofans with four much bigger, higher-bypass ratio, higher-thrust turbofans (the PW2000 and the Rolls-Royce RB211 were contenders). Plans have now solidified on swapping the TF33s with eight engines of a similar size, weight, and thrust rating, retaining the existing nacelles and minimizing the need for structural modifications. The aim is to reduce maintenance costs and improve fuel efficiency by at least 20 per cent.

Read the full feature in Combat Aircraft’s forthcoming October issue, out this Thursday.


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