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The Military Technology

Sixty Years On, B-52s Are Still Going Strong 403

Hugh Pickens writes "Those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s knew the B-52 Stratofortress as a central figure in the anxiety that flowed from the protracted staring match between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Now CNET reports that it was 60 years ago, on April 15, 1952, that a B-52 prototype built by Boeing took off on its maiden flight and although the 1950s-vintage B-52s are no longer in the US Air Force inventory, the 90 or so H models delivered between May 1961 and October 1962 still remain on active duty. 'The B-52 has been a wonderful flying box,' says retired Brig. Gen. Peyton Cole. 'It's persevered all these years because it's been able to adapt and still continues to fly. It started out as a high-level flying platform during the Cold War. Then as air defenses got better it became a low-level penetrator, and more than that was the first aircraft to fly low-level at night through FLIR (forward looking infrared) and night-vision TV.' The B-52's feat of longevity reflects both regular maintenance and timely upgrades — in the late 1980s, for instance, GPS capabilities were incorporated into the navigation system but it also speaks to the astronomical costs of the next-generation bombers that have followed the B-52 into service (a total of 744 were built, counting all models) with the Air Force. B-52s cost about $70 million apiece (in today's dollars), while the later, stealth-shaped B-2 Spirit bombers carried an 'eye-watering $3-billion-a-pop unit price.' The Air Force's 30-year forecast, published in March, envisions an enduring role for the B-52 and engineering studies, the Air Force says, suggest that the life span of the B-52 could extend beyond the year 2040. 'At that point, why not aim for the centennial mark?'"
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Sixty Years On, B-52s Are Still Going Strong

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @05:57AM (#39698631)

    The Wikipedia cite is all screwed up. If you look at the citation for unit cost, it's a GAO report from 14 Aug 1997 that lists an estimated per-unit cost of $2.131 billion in 1996 dollars.

    The Wikipedia article also cites the same document for program costs through *2004*. I'm guessing we've spent some additional funds between 1997 and 2004....

    Wikipedia: worth every penny you paid to get it.

  • by Gideon Wells ( 1412675 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @05:58AM (#39698637)

    Using Wikipedia, scroll down and you'll get this gem: "The total program cost projected through 2004 was US$44.75 billion in 1997 dollars. This includes development, procurement, facilities, construction, and spare parts. The total program cost averaged US$2.13 billion per aircraft." If you use the $.737 billion in 1997 = $1.07 billion today with inflation as a guide, and apply it to the $2.13 billion you will get ~$3 billion.

    So it cost twice the cost of the entire fleet just to research, develop and build the facilities needed to build these fighters. Though originally there was supposed to be another hundred of these things made instead of 21. Had the full fleet of 32 been constructed the price per B-2 would have plummitted to a total cost of ~$1.25 billion per craft in "todays" dollars, but the cost around have been another ~$111 billion inflated adjusted dollars for the project as a whole.

  • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:40AM (#39698755)

    The basic model is now 60 years old, the oldest flying ones 50 years. But that doesn't make them 50-60 year old tech. The models will have received many modifications over time; look at the commercial Boeing 737 airliner with it's many sub-versions and modifications. A newly delivered model looks quite different from the first model, and that's just the outside.

    On the inside, all the electronics will have been retrofitted several times over by now. Newer radios, navigation systems, etc. They all have GPS now, which didn't exist when the first B52 flew. Engines too, if only because they wear out over time. And then you will use a more modern, better engine to put in place of the old ones. Ongoing modernisation.

    By the way, one of the main specs of an aircraft is it's top speed. The faster you are, the faster you can get in, do your job, and get out, outmanouvring a slower opponent in the meantime. However there is this thing called the sound barrier, limiting most aircraft to about 85-90% of the speed of sound. To go radically faster you need a radically different design of the plane, and a lot more engine power (so burning more fuel), for a generally smaller payload. The same for the B-52, it's speed is limited by the sound barrier, and any newer heavy bomber will have the same problem.

    This also explains why, over the last 40 years or so, commercial aircraft have not received any speed increases (the Concorde being an exception - and underlining the problems of breaking the sound barrier).

  • Unfortunately, your conclusion isn't all that correct - the B-2 was not designed for crew survivability, it was designed for mission survivability in that it was supposed to be a first strike weapon against the Soviet command and control structures. Whether that allowed the crews to return to base after striking their targets in the Soviet Union was a mere byproduct, because it was always assumed that the Soviets would get off enough ICBMs to still cause significant damage on US soil, including major military bases...

    The survivability fact came as a happy bonus later on when the B-2s role was switched to a more conventional one during other conflicts.

  • Good value (Score:2, Informative)

    by Grayhand ( 2610049 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:41AM (#39699005)
    B-52s, A-10s, F15, F16s all saw heavy use and cost a tenth or less than the modern high tech planes. Now look at the track record for next generation aircraft. B-1 never saw a day of service, after years of testing the B-2 finally saw light use in the first gulf war and more in the latest, F-22 not a day of service. These aircraft cost 400 million to 3 billion. The military keeps insisting they need the latest and best but once they get them they rarely use them. Another plane that cost a fortune and took forever to see service was the Osprey. They finally saw service in the latest wars but development started before a lot of people on this site were born. Better to focus effort and limited funds on aircraft that actually get used. Most of these next generation aircraft were pork barrel projects. That's why they were never able to kill the Osprey. The Senator whose home state had the contract fought every attempt to shut down the program so billions were wasted.
  • by Drethon ( 1445051 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:28AM (#39699203)
    The B-1 Lancer has nearly double the bomb load of the B-52, higher speed and better stealth. Also the B-1 has excellent loiter times so it can sit near a target area and when a high priority target is identified, accelerate in at high speed and take out the target with a heavy bomb load in minutes. Unfortunately all this increased capability has a tradeoff of increased complexity, and from what I hear poor and low cost construction, so costs and maintenance time are greatly increased.
  • by afidel ( 530433 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:09AM (#39699847)
    God damn ignorant idiot parroting what they hear on tv and radio. The reason those toilet seats were so expensive is that they were actually an entire bathroom for a long out of production plane. The contractor had to design and create a whole new set of large injection molds as well as source and certify a bunch of milspec hardware to operate the lavatory plumbing. Was it expensive? Sure, but not nearly as expensive as building a new airframe which was the alternative to doing the retrofit.

    The gold hammer was a similar situation, a contractor was asked to come up with a sound deadening toolbox for working outside the sonicly protected envelope of nuclear submarines. They did a ton of research and put together the quietest toolset that could be acquired without designing new tools (other than the box itself which was a custom part which was both sound deadening as well as magnetically and physically harnessable). The design work was then spread amongst a few dozen production toolboxes for the fleet and a few dozen more for training purposes. When you ask people to do lots of research or work to produce a small number of objects it's always going to make those objects very expensive, but if the alternative is a new airframe or losing a nuclear submarine the work can easily be seen as a good investment. What we really need to do is focus on cost plus contracts and Congress keeping alive programs that are no longer needed by the military but which are kept alive for the sake of jobs in certain districts.
  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:18AM (#39699919)

    He was in the 487th and this happened in January of 1945, or the winter of 45, anyway. Paris was liberated in ... the fall of 44 or so, like august?

    He's dead more than a decade so I can't get further clarification, and, like most veterans, he didn't like talking about it much. The land was not German occupied land at that moment.. he was happy to land on free french land rather than having to set down while still in Germany, which would have been rather awkward, having just bombed it. He mentioned the French farmer was pretty happy to see him, they drank booze until a bunch of trucks came to pick them up, a much warmer welcome than the Germans would have given him.

    Unlike modern 48 hour wars, WWII kind of dragged on a bit... there was not a flip of the switch in 1940 and/or 1945 where all of france was instantly under german control or instantly free.

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:23AM (#39699957)

    And by the magic of GOOG, the date appears to be 8-Jan-45. link to pix below. They just write "Aircraft crash landed on continent with battle damage" but verbally I was told by him that it was definitely landed on a farm in free-at-that-time France. []

  • by 3263827 ( 192923 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @01:28PM (#39701645)

    Wow. Mach 2 eh? And people modded this up.

    The B-52 has always and will always be a subsonic aircraft.

"Conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will." -- Virginia Woolf, "Mrs. Dalloway"