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Air Force Secretary: B-52 accident will not push engine upgrade

The Air Force is not moving faster on an effort to re-engine the Boeing B-52, even after a TF33 dropped from a bomber during a training mission earlier this week.

In her final speech in Washington 6 January, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the recent accident would not give more urgency to an earlier effort to re-engine the B-52. However, James notes there remains interests in replacing the bomber’s aging Pratt & Whitney engines.

“Not because people are so worried about catastrophic failures of engines or engines running out of life,” she says. “It’s more the question of would it be more efficient, would we save money and life cycle costs by re-engining the B-52, because, of course, modern day engines are more fuel efficient. It would be a significant up front cost but maybe it would save us over the course of the life cycle.”

James avoided speculating the cause of the engine accident while the air force conducts an investigation. During the 4 January training mission, one of the aircraft’s eight engines experienced a catastrophic failure causing the engine to disintegrate and fall from the aircraft. The USAF believes the engine lies at the bottom of a riverbed, which will make recovery more complex, James says.

Without the results of the investigation, James says she has no reason to think the incident marks a fleet-wide problem.

“I don’t want anybody to think that the B-52 fleet isn’t a fine, safe flying [aircraft],” she says. “It’s one of the oldest aircraft that we have but I will tell you that the mission capable rates are excellent on the B-52, so you have to keep these things into account as you’re thinking this through.”

Although the USAF has no funding in the fiscal year 2017 budget for a re-engine effort, the service is not taking the option off the table and is continuing cost comparison studies.

“We’re looking at public private partnerships as one of the possible ways to finance the re-engine effort,” Lt Gen Arnold Bunch, military deputy for the assistant secretary of the air force for acquisition, told reporters following James’ speech. “But we’re also looking at what would it take if we just wanted to make an investment, what would be the return, we’re weighing all those options.”

Working with US Air Force Global Strike Command, the service is examining whether a new engine could reduce the number of maintenance personnel positions or tankers needed to support bomber operations. It’s not likely the air force would be able to reduce the number of engines needed to power the bomber, Bunch says.

“I don’t believe that would be one that we would do,” he says. “But I don’t put anything off the realm of what we can look at.”

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