Bomber could be transformed and recast as US Air Force's first component in envisaged airborne electronic system

Boeing has started technical studies to transform the USAir Force's 50-year-old B-52 bomber fleet into simultaneous electronic-warfare and strike platforms, and is also continuing a range of avionics and communications upgrades in the aircraft's cockpit to extend its utility over the coming decades.

The preparations come several months before the air force plans to formally launch an effort to modify 16 of its current B-52Hs by fiscal year 2013 to carry wing-mounted jamming pods, says Scot Oathout, Boeing's B-52 programme director. The service also plans eventually to rewire most of its 93 B-52s to carry the pods, but is still struggling to define how many of the jamming systems should be purchased.

The upgrade aims to recast the B-52 as the first USAF component in an envisaged airborne electronic-attack system to also feature its Lockheed Martin EC-130H Compass Call aircraft and the US Navy's developmental Boeing EA-18G Growler.

These manned systems would be supplemented in several years by Raytheon's miniature air-launched decoy (MALD) and a planned MALD-J jammer variant, plus the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System equipped with an electronic-warfare payload.

Oathout last week outlined a two-spiral strategy for the modifications to the B-52 fleet. Spiral 1 will consist of mounting twin wing pods, each offering 180° coverage, on four B-52Hs. An initial operational assessment in 2009 will measure the new system's ability to jam communications links between enemy radar sites and missile targeting crews.

Spiral 2 will conclude three years later, and offer a capability to detect and jam more advanced radar emitters and unplanned "pop-up" targets, says Oathout. Boeing will be tasked with fitting twin wing pods on six more B-52s during this spiral, with another six to be modified 12 months later.

The air force has decided that it wants to develop an all-new jamming pod for the B-52 mission, says Oathout, but details about its configuration and requirements are still vague. Planners only know that the pod must be the same weight as the B-52's existing 2,270kg (5,000lb) underwing fuel tanks. The pod's exact capabilities are being established as the military refines the operational concepts required of its new airborne electronic attack fleet.

Although the B-52 is entering its sixth decade of service, the airframes remain relatively young at around 16,000 flight hours. Boeing projects the bombers will be viable until 2040, when their upper-wing surface fatigue will become too costly to manage. The aircraft demonstrated their flexibility during 2001's Afghanistan conflict, where they provided vital close air support for coalition ground forces.

Another upgrade programme set to launch next year should allow the bomber to become involved in network-centric operations. Delayed by a year due to budget pressures, the Combat Network Communications Technology programme adds in-flight weapon and aircraft mission planning and retasking. Upgrades include satellite communications, new datalinks and enhanced cockpit displays.



Source: Flight International