Magazine article National Defense

B-52 Flies in Face of Critics

Magazine article National Defense

B-52 Flies in Face of Critics

Article excerpt

The longest serving military aircraft in the world, the B-52 Stratofortess, often is praised for its storied history, but it also has become a symbol of the Pentagon's inertia in moving forward with the development of a new bomber.

"I think there's been a huge disparity in how much money is invested in bombers versus the short-range aircraft," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

"There still isn't a program for a new replacement bomber, and there needs to be," he told a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments forum. The Air Force, Dicks said, is "limping along" with aging bombers.

Retired general and former head of the Air Combat Command, Richard Hawley, said the Defense Department needs to start planning for a new generation of bombers to be deployed by 2020 at the latest. "We've got to get off this do-nothing kick," he added.

The Air Force, meanwhile, does not appear to be in any hurry to build a new bomber, and maintains that the Stratofortress fleet is healthy enough to continue to fly for many years.

The B-52 is going to remain in operation for three more decades, Col. James Nally, B-52 program director at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., told National Defense.

Current plans call for the Air Force to keep the B-52 H-class fleet active until 2040. By that time, the last aircraft to roll off the Boeing assembly line in 1962 will be 78 years old.

Because the B-52's first mission was to stand ready to deliver nuclear payloads, the aircraft spent most of its hours on the tarmac, Nally said. "Even though it's an old airplane, it doesn't have the amount of wear and tear for it that you would expect," Nally said. "Long term, we don't see any issues with the structure of the airplane."

Richard Martin, B-52 deputy program director, said the average B-52 is in the air about 250 hours a year. The upper wing surface has a limit of 28,600 to 33,200 hours of life, and the average unit has logged about 12,500 hours so far. Ninety-four aircraft remain in the fleet. "Our chart doesn't go past 2040, but on the line they are on, it could go past 2040 for sure," Martin added.

The B-52 has evolved greatly from its Cold War days and will continue to add new missions with upgrades, such as the standoff jammer, in the works. Air Force officials said.

The original B-52 models were designed for long-range, high-altitude flights to deliver nuclear payloads. The H-class, however, included defensive and structural modifications that allowed it to fly lower to evade Soviet air defenses. The Air Force then used the B-52 during the Vietnam War to drop conventional munitions, Hawley said. …

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