What the Air Force Needs is a New B-52

B-52 A conceptual drawing of a re-engined B-52 (Boeing)

The Doomsday Clock has been ticking on the Boeing B-52 almost since the first three B-52As rolled off the line in Seattle back in 1954. It has withstood the trisonic XB-70, the Mach 2 B-1A, the less-supersonic-but-more-stealthy B-1B, and the ultimate weapon, the B-2, not to mention ICBM-laden C-5s and countless other designs that looked formidable on the drawing board but never got further than that.

Now comes word that the final nail in the Stratofortress’ coffin may finally come in the form of the LRS-B, or Long Range Strike Bomber, but not until at least the 2020s. Northrop-Grumman won the contract in October, but if recent events are an indication, you can plan on waiting longer than that for the Air Force’s new toy to do what it is supposed to do.

In the meantime, the remaining 80 or so B-52Hs continue to rack up flight hours and combat sorties over the Middle East. In its service over Afghanistan, the big bomber has come full-circle in some respect. Originally designed (as its nickname implies) as a high-level nuclear bomber, dropping megaton-yield H-bombs on Soviet facilities and cities from 50,000 feet, the advent of SAMs in the ’60s forced the B-52 down to low-level bomb runs, and in Vietnam, mid-level conventional bombing. Finally, in the second half-century of its existence, the B-52 is back flying higher than the highest, but dropping precision-guided conventional munitions in concert with ground forces. It is, in short, the ultimate bomb truck.

With an unrefuelled range approaching 10,000 miles, it can loiter for hours, waiting for the call. This of course, with eight jet engines, the last of which were produced in 1985. Those engines are getting old too, and it seems the Air Force can’t quite get around to replacing them. Eight Pratt & Whitney TF33 engines burn on the order of 3,000 gallons of fuel per hour, and that’s not a cheap gas bill.

But the B-52 isn’t still around because it’s cheap. It’s still around because it does the job better than anything else. The job of hauling conventional bombs halfway around the world to drop them down the chimneys of tribal warriors in the Middle East doesn’t require stealth. It does, however, require efficiency and the ability to carry lots of bombs.

So instead of waiting for the LRS-B to get off the ground, why not ask the boys at Boeing to dust off the old blueprints, load them up in the computers and build a batch or two of brand new, updated B-52s?

This has happened before. The TR-1 was an updated U-2, put back into production nearly 25 years after the first U-2 took to the air.

Of course, designing a “new” B-52 from old plans will require some serious re-engineering. Fortunately, Boeing is already pretty good at this in another market – the commercial market.

737s and 747s have been rolling off the lines for years in various updated configurations. Look at a 737-9 from today and you’ll see some exterior differences (notably engines) from the first 737s, but although they may look generally the same, they are completely different on the interior, from airframe construction and materials to avionics.

So not only can this be done – it should be done.

The Proposal for a New B-52

An updated B-52 model – Let’s call it the B-52J Super Stratofortress – is going to need a few things, so let’s list the big ones right here:

New Engines

Like we mentioned earlier, the B-52H’s TF33 turbofans were discontinued three decades ago. The ones that remain aren’t going to last much longer. So it’s high time for a replacement.

Needing eight engines is a wasteful thing of the past. So a new B-52 should have four high-bypass turbofans that are more efficient, quieter, and more powerful than the current octet – and that’s before taking into account the famous smoke issue:

B-52 takeoff smoke

A B-52 leaves behind its characteristic curtain of black smoke as it takes off (USAF)

The Air Force has explored re-engining its B-52s on and off for years now, including fairly recently, according to Foxtrot Alpha. And more than a few times, B-52s have been called upon to serve as testbeds for new engines, like this JB-52E (57-0119) that served as the guinea pig for the Pratt & Whitney JT9D under development for the 747:

Boeing JB-52E JT9D

Boeing JB-52E (S/N 57-0119) in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Here are some potential options:

Rolls-Royce RB-211 – A product of Allison, bought out by RR some time ago, this engine has been earmarked for the B-52 in almost every re-engining proposal for years. Boeing has used these in 757s.

Pratt & Whitney PW4000 – P&W’s older successor to the 747’s ground-breaking JT9D, used in the 747-400, 767, and KC-46 tanker.

Pratt & Whitney F117 – The military variant of the PW2000, already in use on 757s and the C-17.

General Electric GE90 – GE’s biggest engine, used on the 777.

General Electric GEnx – GE’s top-flight new engine, used in the 787 Dreamliner and 747-8.

General Electric F138 – Also known in civil parlance as the CF6, this is already in use on the new C-5M Galaxy, as well as Air Force One and military variants of the 767.

Here are some interesting comparisons between the above engines (in sets of four) and the current engines (in a set of 8):

EngineTotal Weight (lb)Total Thrust (lb)T/W RatioDiameter (in)
PW TF33 (8)31,200136,0004.3653
RB-211 535E4 (4)29,056160,4005.5274
PW 4000-94 (4)38,280146,0003.81112
PW F117-PW-100 (4)28,400161,6005.6984.5
GE90-94B (4)66,576374,8005.63134
GEnx-1B64 (4)51,288255,2004.98111
GE F138-PW-100 (4)39,440247,8406.28106

One of the primary issues is ground clearance for the outer engines, given the foreign object debris issues, drooping wings and outrigger wheels.

Another sticky wicket would involve the engine-out characteristics of a four-engined B-52, as Bill Sweetman alludes to here. But two possible solutions in a new variant would be (1) an automatic flight control system that helps keep the aircraft straight and level autonomously, and (2) going back to the old tall fin from the B-52A-F models, providing greater surface area, and thus better lateral stability.

Given these considerations, as well as the power and weight specifications for the engines themselves, the Pratt & Whitney F117 seems like it may be the best option. Four of them are lighter than even the eight current engines, would provide a nearly 20% increase in total thrust, and are only 10 inches or so wider than the RB-211s, which have been given serious consideration.

But smarter people than me may arrive at a different conclusion.

Strengthened Airframe

Composite construction – Lighter than aluminum, but stronger than steel. That’s what composite construction is.

A lighter aircraft allows more spare power, and that allows more payload. More payload equals more stuff to do. It’s simple.

The B-52’s wings have always been a point of concern. Using advanced materials like that used in Boeing’s construction of the X-32 JSF demonstrator may help solve the Stratofortress’ wing fatigue issues for once and for all.

Mind you, the plane should not be completely constructed of composites, but key areas in the fuselage, as well as the wings, should be strengthened through composite construction.

Winglets – They’re a small aerodynamic adjustment, but as Boeing’s airliner fleet has found out, this small adjustment could result in as much as a further 4% savings in fuel. Sign us up.

Modern Avionics

Oh my God, look at this cockpit:

B-52 Cockpit

A B-52 cockpit. Photo: YouTube

Holy pressure dials, Batman.

Boeing has already upgraded the B-52’s communications systems for the first time in nearly 50 years, installing the CONECT system. But there’s so much more that can be done, including:

Fully glass cockpit – Again, everything can be seen on command here.

Automated Flight Control System – These things are still flying thanks to gears and pulleys. Fly-by-wire has been around a while, and in a new aircraft that may or may not have control issues in emergencies, an automatic flight control system would be a tremendous help to the crew, not to mention how hard it is to steer the B-52 around in its current configuration:

Upgraded radar and combat avionics – You can’t hit what you can’t see. The BUFF’s radar has needed an upgrade for years. Newer models compatible with CONECT can further enhance the 52’s combat capabilities. Add GPS navigation and targeting and the 52 can finally catch up to our cars.

These innovations may enable the Air Force to reduce the crew needed from five to possibly as few as two, a-la the B-2. There’s a further savings in weight.

Here’s what it won’t need: Stealth or any other low-observable tech. The B-52 is not designed to get into and out of places undetected. It’s supposed to stay up there and blow things up when needed because the bad guys can’t get to it.

What might it look like? Well, here’s a look at BRAVO464’s speculative prototype on DeviantArt.

Cost

A B-52H in today’s dollars would cost about $82 million per unit flyaway. Given updated materials, electronics and engines, we’re probably looking at $100-125 million a piece for a B-52J.

Yes, that’s a lot. But the LRS-B’s unit cost is projected right now to be in the range of $564 million in 2016 dollars.

So I propose ordering a batch of 50 brand new B-52Js at $100 million a piece, and using them to retire both the B-52H and B-1B by 2020.

Proven technology is something the DoD tends to shy away from. In the era of sequestration, let’s give it a second look. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Well, get some newer ones, but don’t go into debt getting the shiny new thing. Use what works and build upon it. No aircraft in the inventory can do that better than the B-52.