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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 @05:38AM (#39698587)

    Wikipedia quotes the unit cost at under $750m introductory in 1997, and with current inflation just over $1b. Where did the $3b number come from?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @05:57AM (#39698629)

    The B-52 may have the same airframe as those of the 1960's, but the aircraft is continuously retrofitted with the latest fly-by-wire and navigation/communication technology, and is capable of accepting newer and more efficient engines. For the role they play as a heavy bomber/delivery system (and in situations that do not warrant usage of expensive stealth technology or have additional fighter support), they are still quite effective in that role today.

  • by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <richardprice@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:08AM (#39698669)

    All modern airforces play the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) game with a large amount of seriousness - the JSF will take over a large amount of that role when it eventually enters service (well, chances are the F-35B will be relegated to second day ops as its bring-back performance is derisory at best), but the B-1B is quite often tasked with it these days (a B-1B armed with a sniper pod is an awesome weapon).

    The F-16 is used a lot in the wild weasel role these days as well.

  • by Dave Emami ( 237460 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:30AM (#39698733) Homepage

    In the September 1965 National Geographic [] feature article on the USAF, they write about the B-52's capabilities, but give a warning, saying (quoting as best I can): "Weapon systems have a useful service life of about a decade, and the B-52 is almost that old now. How long will it be until we need to replacement for it?"

    Mind you, in 1965 that outlook did make more sense than it does in hindsight. The USAF/USAAF's primary long-range bomber had gone from the B-29 to the B-36 to the B-47 to the B-52 within the the space of twenty years, and the B-70 hadn't been cancelled yet. The same thing applies to fighters, going from one new deployed design per year on average, then, down to one every 10-12 years now. I presume part of that is due to increased computing capability allowing more tinkering and experimentation without having to actually build something, but that can't be all of it. Anyone care to speculate?

  • by AtomicSnarl ( 549626 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:48AM (#39698781) Homepage
    By comparison, a unit cost for a Boeing 747-8 is around $330 Million, vs the around $1,000 Million for a full production run B-2. Just remember the 747 cost does not include the R&D costs of the decade it took to develop the design and build the factory, etc, whereas the full R&D cost is part of the B-2 cost. If you strip out the development costs, a B-2 airframe runs around $600 M, roughly twice the 747 costs for an aircraft with much, much more, very specialized capability. Overall, not a bad price for what it can do - haul 20+ tons of weapons 8,000+ miles unrefuled, invisibly, and hit a 3 foot circle. Many of them.
  • by paiute ( 550198 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:52AM (#39698799)
    I get nervous driving a new car which costs in the neighborhood of $20K. I can't imagine the stress of flying a billion-dollar aircraft. If you have a major problem and are about to punch out, does the thought that you are about to burn a BILLION DOLLARS cross your mind?
  • Today's B-52 only vaguely resembles the original version of itself. The original B-52 flew on hydraulic systems controlled by mechanical computers, on inputs from pilots reading analog gauges.

    Today's B-52 has been retrofitted with the most advanced fly-by-wire control systems, avionics, engines, radars, communications, and ordnance delivery systems money can buy - all of which can be obtained from multiple sources, which is why it can still be built for $70M, as opposed to the no-bid, single source, $3B B-2.

    About the only thing it has in common with its ancestors is that it's still a tin can with 8 scrolls that can rain fire and death from 40,000 feet.

  • Re:US Propaganda. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by swalve ( 1980968 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:04AM (#39698849)
    If there ever was a war with China, it would probably be lost by the US's unwillingness to create mass casualties. We'd have to kill hundreds of millions, and the only way that would be acceptable was if it was an all-out invasion-and-enslave type of war.
  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:20AM (#39698897)

    Carrying X amount of bombs to target Y doesn't change much over the years

    At a given altitude and given airspeed and given mission size / bomb weight, there's an optimum airframe shape. That shape is the B-52. You could make a new bomber to do the same mission. It would look exactly like a B-52.

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:24AM (#39698923)

    does the thought that you are about to burn a BILLION DOLLARS cross your mind

    That's a question for the politicians who built it and "paid" for it, not the pilots.

    My grandfather crashed a B-17 in free-at-that-time France, from his stories he was worried a hell of a lot more about fire and impact, than about who would pay the bill. It all turned out well in the end for everyone in the crew, probably because he worried more about being a pilot than doing accountant work.

  • The B-52 doesn't have fly-by-wire, and it still uses largely the same engines as it did in the 1970s...

    Also, the B-2 was not no-bid, single source, there was a fairly significant competition between at least three parties for it, including Lockheed.

  • by smpoole7 ( 1467717 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:33AM (#39698967) Homepage

    > But that doesn't make them 50-60 year old tech

    Good point and well said.

    But as for the airframe ... as long as they can confirm that the fuselage is sound and in good shape, there's no reason why they can't continue to fly. The truth is, even before computer modeling, the "best" shapes for both subsonic and supersonic craft were pretty well determined. They had to use wind tunnels and physical modeling to arrive at (for example) the familiar-looking rounded nose, the swept wings and so on. What the computer models do nowadays is (a) confirm that the people who came up with these basic airframe shapes in the 50's were surprisingly good[g] and (b) add refinements. Unless you're building a completely-new design (such as a stealthed aircraft), the tried-and-true designs that were arrived at in the 50's and 60's work just fine.

    Take a look at an older 707 and compare it to the latest Dreamliner. The planform looks quite similar. The newer design uses composites and other enhancements, but unless you're looking closely, the shape of the airframe is quite similar on both. Why mess with success?

    (In fact, with commercial aircraft, it's common to develop a basic design, then introduce subsequent models that "stretch" it for more seating, or change engines for better performance. Why re-invent the wheel?)

  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:55AM (#39699057) Journal
    It will not need to. At this point, we will no doubt be making heavy use of drones. My guess is that within 10 years, most of our bombing runs will be via drones.
  • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:57AM (#39699069)

    I made circuit breakers for B1s - over $1000 a pop, compared to about $600 for similar units for other planes, price difference mostly due to low volume.

  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:58AM (#39699075) Journal
    Nope. Remove the flight crew. Drones will do this work. I would not be surprised to see the BWB/X-48 be developed and then used for such a mission. The advantage is that it would require a fraction of the fuel, while being able to carry a bigger load. Add a small band of drone fighters around it and issues solved.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:59AM (#39699081)

    Actually -- they are so worn out that their bomb load is less than 30% of the original. Yup, Aluminum wears out when repeatedly stressed. When you decide you want to cry, the CO2 cost of the B-1 and B-2 are substantially lower per ton of bombs dropped. If we hadn't let the politicians lie to us, we could have had a newer fleet for a much lower cost. Though the unit cost is around $1.5B in current costs, the operational costs are an order of magnitude or more (how deeply do you dig into the AF budget) higher.

  • Re:Good value (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <richardprice@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:07AM (#39699111)

    Wow, lots of things wrong with your timeline...

    The B-1 was a cancelled project, which was reactivated and became the B-1B - which saw combat in Iraq in 1998 (it was in service for the first Gulf War, but was only capable of a nuclear role and thus was on nuclear deterrent duty for the duration).

    The B-2 first saw combat in Kosovo in 1999, two years after it entered USAF service.

    F-22 has no requirement to be deployed overseas, there are no jobs for it to do currently - why not run out the airframe time on older airframes rather than waste the more expensive air dominance aircraft...

  • Re:Drop the pilots (Score:4, Interesting)

    by neyla ( 2455118 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:11AM (#39699117)

    It's worth it in a democracy. The US public has substantially larger patience with a war costing a gazillion dollars than they do, over time, with coffins arriving in a steady stream.

    Killing american soldiers who walk around on the ground is a lot easier to do than killing those that are in planes many kilometres up, or that control drones from dozens of miles away.

    The only way to beat the US military at the moment is to take away their support at home in the USA. Make Americans demand that they come home. Beating them on the field of battle is not currently reasonably possible for any nation. This ain't surprising given that the expenditures are larger than for the next 3 runners-up combined.

  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:15AM (#39699141) Journal
    The B-1B flies at 725 knots, while the B-52 is at 560. Less than 50% faster.
    However, a Bone's radius is around 5000 km, while the Buff's is around 7000 KM.
    The real advantage is that a Bone's payload is almost double what a Buff's is (120K vs. 70K lbs).

    But as to the area, nope. Buff has the advantage. And considering that the Bone is expected for nukes, we would not really like one shot down over Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran. As it is, China has stolen far too much of our tech.
  • by turing_m ( 1030530 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:15AM (#39699143)

    Maybe not exactly like it. Maybe a BWB or flying wing might have better payload/range, considering that the replacement would be able to be made more aerodynamic due to the availability of more powerful computational devices than a slide rule. However, possibly not that much better that the investment is going to be worth it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:19AM (#39699165)

    That shape is the B-52. You could make a new bomber to do the same mission. It would look exactly like a B-52.

    Utter tosh. The B-52 configuration was designed in a hotel room using 1940s aerodynamics and material knowledge. Even in the early 1960s it was easily out-performed by RAF V-bombers which could cruise past at Mach 0.96 and 20,000 feet higher. As well as operating from airfeilds half the length and twice the elevation.

    A modern design would probably be a blended-wing. Or a Vulcan.

  • by guisar ( 69737 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:26AM (#39699191) Homepage

    Not precisely- most certainly it would have at most four turbofans (much more fuel efficient), a full - flying (split, indepedendent) elevator and rudder (avoiding the wacko landing gear configuration or at least allowing greater adjustment and manuverability), more extensive ECCM and SEAD capabilities. It would also probably be cancelled as the USAF would fill it with composite materials which drive up production costs, new instead of proven commercial engines and so on. Also, without an asshole like Lemay in charge, it's tough for anything to make it through the system these days. Something as reliable and straightforward as the B52 wouldn't have a chance- just a a replacement for the A-10 doesn't have a chance.

  • Re:US Propaganda. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:44AM (#39699279) Journal

    The Soviets were really afraid of our ICBMs and especially our balistic submarines

    B-52s were the atomic bomb delivery system of choice long before either of those two. For the first couple decades, it was ALL strategic bombers. The Soviets captured and copied a few US craft just to get those capabilities themselves, back when they didn't have any.

    Oh and let me tell you about how our Air Force and Army will hold up against the Chinese - they couldn't. They will just out number us with shear quanitity. Whiz bang jet fighters? Bombers? Etc?

    Technology and training allows for a large disparity in kill rates. China only outnumbers the US by 4.3 to 1. Can 1 advanced fighter take out 4-5 of the Chinese's low-end junk? Most definitely. We've seen bigger disparities in previous wars.

    For a quick comparison. The US has 11 active aircraft carriers. China has zero, working on one right now. That's a massive millitary advantage.

    Afghanistan? Not freedom. Like the Taliban or Al-Qaeda could take our Freedom away

    No, we're fighting for Afghani freedom. If we didn't care about them, we would have carpet-bombed the Taliban out of existence and left the wreckage for someone else to clean-up. Instead, the war has dragged on as we struggle in our attempts at nation-building.

  • by dirtyhippie ( 259852 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:54AM (#39699333) Homepage

    Despite what the author of this article might have you believe, the B-52 is not magical. "The B-52's feat of longevity reflects both regular maintenance and timely upgrades"? Bull.

    The B-52's feat of longevity reflects two things: 1) the shift to ICBMs as primary mechanism to ensure mutually assured destruction in the cold war 2) the miserable failure of the USAF to solicit new bomber designs that don't cost orders of magnitude more than the B-52.

    If the USAF had ever solicited designs to replace the B-52 with something *modestly* better, using cost as a priority, the B-52 would be long gone, and there would be a more capable aircraft in it's place. The fact that there's no need for such a plane does not make the B-52 magical. It's a pustule that's lanced regularly, that's all.

  • by edremy ( 36408 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @09:05AM (#39699397) Journal
    In ten years? My guess is that the date was ~3 years ago- Obama's really ramped up the drone program and unless you restrict "bomb" to something free falling rather than a Maverick or Hellfire the number of drone strikes vastly outnumbers manned bomber runs.
  • by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @09:08AM (#39699415) Journal
    France did not go all at once. The initial invasion was in 1940, but France wasn't completely occupied until 1942. Since the B-17 entered service in 1941, there was about a year in which Grandpa-vlm could have had his crash.
  • by jitterman ( 987991 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @09:09AM (#39699429)
    I was an Air Force brat (my father flew KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, "flying gas stations") and we were stationed at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, a major B-52 base. I can confirm that I have heard from airmen the same things you have stated. B-1 has some excellent qualities, but cost of operation is not one of them.

    Initially created to be a low-level penetrator capable of delivering (relatively) low-yield tactical nuclear payloads deep into the heart of the USSR (thereby avoiding setting off Russian ICBM early alert systems that a ground-based missile launch would cause), with the end of the Soviet Union the B-1's primary mission was diminished/removed. At that point, cost of running the damn thing (various sources put the amount at roughly twice that of the B-52 per flight hour) makes the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat... ahem) a smart choice for supporting ground troops, etc, with conventional JDAMS, at least for the US's current engagements.

    If Cold War-era threats ever rear up again (and there are a few countries who could still pose these types of challenges), the B-1 and B-2 will be the strategic platforms of choice. In conventional engagements, the B-52 has proven to be far more than simply adequate.
  • by Glock27 ( 446276 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @09:12AM (#39699443)

    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.

    The B-1 is a very underrated platform. I love the B1-R concept, which would upgrade the B-1 with F-22 engines, improved radar and a new rotary launcher for around 20 AMRAAM missiles. That would let it supercruise (possibly along with F-22 escorts) at around Mach 1.5 as it was originally designed to do, and it would have an insane air-to-air capability if needed as well.

    The B-1 is already fairly stealthy, if new airframes were built for the B1-R program fairly minor enhancements could get it within shouting distance of the B-2. That kind of capability would be invaluable when (not if) we have to deal with a first-tier adversary.

  • B-52's nickname: BUF (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Monday April 16, 2012 @09:22AM (#39699507) Homepage Journal

    I hauled AGE (Aerospace Ground Equipment; power generators, lights, air condistioners, etc) to the BUFs in 1973-4 at Utapao AFB in Thailand. B-52s were commonly known as BUFs -- Big Ugly Fuckers. They certainly were ugly, ugly as in REALLY mean looking.

    I got to Thailand 4 days before the congress' mandated end to the bombing, and one took off every thirty seconds from when I got there until the deadline. I thought they were trying to drop as many bombs as they could before the cutoff time, but I later met a man who'd been stationed there five years earlier, and one took off every thirty seconds the whole year he was there.

    I was stationed at Beale in California after coming back to the states, and had the best job in the world. It was to take a pickup truck, make sure it was full of gas and everything worked, then play pool, read, play pinball, watch TV while waiting for Armageddon, when I would drive the pilot to his BUF to nuke Russia.

    There were more BUFs there than I could count. Every one of them was loaded with nuclear ordinance.

    I always referred to Beale as Armageddon Air Force Base.

    More interesting were the SR-71s at Beale, they had nine of them. The only louder sound I ever heard was a space shuttle taking off. Watching from a mile away, the ground shook as it shot down the runway, did a wheelie, and looked like a bottlerocket taking off.

    The military has some amazing tech.

  • by bws111 ( 1216812 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @09:30AM (#39699585)

    He specifically said 'at a given altitude and airspeed'. You are talking about planes that operate at DIFFERENT altitudes and airspeeds.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:01AM (#39699797)

    If you ever wished you could fly one of those, you should do a google search for 'flightgear sr-71'. I think there was a post either here on slashdot or over on regarding their simulation of the SR-71, including 'unassisted takeoff from Beale'. Apparently given keyboard controls and a joystick, it's rather... fun... to try and get all your controls toggled in time to get it into the air before you run out of runway :)

    Personally haven't tried it. I tend to like floating around in things with less complexity, usually prop driven, old, and weird looking :D

  • by operagost ( 62405 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:31AM (#39700017) Homepage Journal
    Yeah, they totally scribbled it on the back of a napkin during lunch. Only thing is, that lunch lasted something like five years and six different configurations (some using turboprops) and involved wind tunnel testing, which must have been really hard to set up in that hotel room. I would be surprised if 1960s designs didn't outperform it, but it did hold speed records in the 1950s.
  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:41AM (#39700081)

    Not precisely- most certainly it would have at most four turbofans (much more fuel efficient), a full - flying (split, indepedendent) elevator and rudder (avoiding the wacko landing gear configuration or at least allowing greater adjustment and manuverability), more extensive ECCM and SEAD capabilities. It would also probably be cancelled as the USAF would fill it with composite materials which drive up production costs, new instead of proven commercial engines and so on.

    Yes but you're basically agreeing with me, that it would look the same. From the outside, only a trained repair tech can tell the difference in ECCM gear and while in the air you don't see the retracted gear. Fundamentally the fuse is gonna be about the same diameter and length, the wingspans going to be about the same probably with the same or at least very similar airfoil...

    I will give you the engine selection and configuration would almost certainly be different. Then again, you could almost unbolt the old engines and bolt new ones on. It would be a major job, but certainly theoretically possible. Unlike most cars, where almost all cars go to the crusher with the same engine they had installed on the assembly line, old planes occasionally get new engines both in the .mil and civilian world.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @11:03AM (#39700247)

    WTF makes a circuit breaker cost $1000 or even $600?

    Can't speak for this particular case, but as someone who works in the industry, I can make some guesses:

    1. Low volume, compared to commercial parts.
    2. Often outrageous (by commercial) environmental durability requirements, for example the ability to work from -54 C to +71 C or even +85 C, in severe vibration environments, for decades at a time. For processor boards, going from commercial/industrial to mil-spec is at least a 10- or 20-fold cost difference, and this is for already-developed off-the-shelf items. Yield becomes an issue.
    3. Testing. Partly because of the severe and varied operating environments and use cases military equipment sees, and the fact that lives depend on functionality, testing programs are longer and more complicated than that used for most consumer or industrial level parts.
    4. Genuine high tech stuff. Less applicable in this case, but a lot of the most expensive military stuff is legitimately 'high tech', using expensive materials (e.g. synthetic sapphire windows for cameras), laborious construction (hand-wound wire coils for specialty motors and antenna) or high-risk low-payoff research and development that companies would never take on without government funding.

    I'll never claim that government contractors are suffering, or that there aren't some inefficiencies, but it certainly isn't ALL inefficiencies. In fact, at least for really expensive cost-reimbursement contracts, the companies are closely audited by the government and amount of profit is regulated by contract, limiting the opportunities for the abuse the companies are accused of.

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