A Brief History of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

By Willie Bodenstein


The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress that has its first flight on 15 April 1952, 72 years ago, is a long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber that has been in active service with the USAF since 1955. A veteran of several wars, the B-52 has dropped only conventional munitions in combat.

Designed and built by Boeing, the B-52 Stratofortress that replaced the Convair B-36 is capable of carrying up to 70,000 pounds (32,000 kg) of weapons. It has a typical combat range of more than 8,800 miles (14,080 km) without aerial refuelling.

The B-52 flew under the Strategic Air Command (SAC) until it was disestablished in 1992 and its aircraft absorbed into the Air Combat Command (ACC); in 2010 all B-52's were transferred from the ACC to the newly created Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). Superior performance at high subsonic speeds and relatively low operating costs have kept the B-52 in service despite the advent of later, more advanced aircraft.

In July 2013, the Air Force began a fleet-wide technological upgrade of its B-52 bombers called Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) to modernize electronics, communications technology, computing, and avionics on the flight deck. CONECT upgrades include software and hardware such as new computer servers, modems, radios, data-links, receivers, and digital workstations for the crew. One update is the ARC-210 Warrior beyond-line-of-sight software programmable radio able to transmit voice, data, and information in-flight between B-52s and ground command and control centres, allowing the transmission and reception of data with updated intelligence, mapping, and targeting information; previous in-flight target changes required copying down coordinates.

CONECT upgrades will cost $1.1 billion overall and take several years. Funding has been secured for 30 B-52s; the Air Force hopes for 10 CONECT upgrades per year, but the rate has yet to be decided.

Weapons upgrades include the 1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade (IWBU), which gives a 66 percent increase in weapons payload using a digital interface and rotary launcher. The 1760 IWBU will allow the B-52 to carry eight JDAM 2000 lb bombs, AGM-158B JASSM-ER cruise missile and the ADM-160C MALD-J decoy missiles internally.

Later development phases will allow for the accommodation of the JASSM and MALD family of missiles and the ability to carry more smart bombs, moving them internally from the wings reduces drag and achieves a 15 percent reduction in fuel consumption.

The B-52 completed sixty years of continuous service in the USAF. After being upgraded between 2013 and 2015, it is expected to serve well into the 2050s.

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