USAF To Fly the B-52 into the 2050s with New Engines, Radars

 - April 13, 2018, 10:11 AM
A B-52H on a strike mission over the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom last July. (Photo: USAF)

The U.S. Air Force has finally decided to fund a re-engining of the B-52H bomber, and has described a plan to keep the fleet of 76 jets in service until at least 2050. The fleet will also receive new radars. The service now plans to retire the much younger but costly-to-operate B-1 and B-2 stealth bombers as new, stealthy B-21s are delivered by Northrop Grumman starting in the late 2020s. In mid-2016, the average flying time logged by each B-52 was 17,867 hours, but the USAF has not reported any major structural issues that could derail its latest plan.

A total of $727.5 million in development spending has been allocated for re-engining over Fiscal Years 2019-2023, plus nearly $550 million for production starting in FY2022. The Air Force plans to select the new engine in the third quarter of FY2019 (the end of June next year). The new radar choice will follow a year later, with a development spend of nearly $900 million envisioned. In total, the service has allocated nearly $2.1 billion in RDT&E and over $1.3 billion in production funding for B-52 modernization and capability improvements over the next five years.

A re-engining of the B-52 fleet has been explored for many years, and previously focused on replacing the eight original low-bypass Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofans with four much bigger turbofans, either the PW2000 or the Rolls-Royce RB211. But wing strengthening and asymmetric engine-out thrust issues arose. The USAF has now decided to replace the 17,000-pound-thrust TF33s with “engines of a similar size, weight, and thrust.”

Rolls-Royce is proposing its BR725 turbofan rated at 17,000 pounds' maximum thrust, as found on the Gulfstream G650 business jet. Earlier versions of the BR700 engine series are already in USAF service with an F130 designation, on the E-11 Battlefield Airborne Communications node version of the Global Express, and the C-37 VIP transport version of the G550. A Rolls-Royce spokesman told AIN that if F130 engines were selected for the B-52, they would be assembled and tested in the US.

A spokesman for GE Aviation told AIN that it would offer two re-engining options for the B-52: the CF34-10 which powers regional airliners and is rated at 18-20,000lbs, or the Passport engine rated at 18-20,000lbs and which was recently certified for the Bombardier Global 7000 business jet.

Among the various other B-52 upgrades being planned is the addition of Link 16 starting in 2020. Meanwhile, work by Boeing to modify the rotary launcher in the bomb bay to accept new conventional weapons continues. When completed, this will allow internal carriage of eight JDAM GPS-guided bombs, eight Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs) or eight Miniature Air Launched Decoys (MALDs). The B-52 can already carry 16 JDAMs or 12 JASSMs externally on wing pylons.