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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?

    • It could be the $750m unit cost plus a share of the total R&D costs, then inflated to current day dollars.
      • As far as I've heard, the cost in today's dollars would be ~$1,5 billion - ~$2 billion, depending on serial number (costs go down as you build more of them), which should include R&D

        • by Barny ( 103770 )

          Possibly some prices are including just the fuselage and the R&D for it, whereas others might include the cost to have them fully loaded with ordinance and equipment as well.

        • 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?
          • 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.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      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.

      • Typo, full fleet of 132 B-2s, not 32.

      • The originally requested B-2 fleet size was well over a hundred, but it suffered large cuts due to the weakening state of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s.

        Thats where the $3Billion price point came in - a large programme to build a large fleet, cut down at the last minute to a small fleet which had to bear all the costs rather than having them amortized over a larger unit figure.

        • 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 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.

    • Here we are quibbling about acquisition cost. The real costs are in operations and maintenance:

      In 1996, the General Accounting Office disclosed that the USAF's B-2 bombers "will be, by far, the most costly bombers to operate on a per aircraft basis", costing over three times as much as the B-1B (US$9.6 million annually) and over four times as much as the B-52H ($US6.8 million annually). In September 1997, each hour of B-2 flight necessitated 119 hours of maintenance in turn. Comparable maintenance needs f

  • by RenHoek ( 101570 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @05:40AM (#39698589) Homepage

    In other news, the B-52's from 'Love Shack' fame, are still going strong after 36 years..

    • by gsslay ( 807818 )

      But it wasn't a rock.
      It was a rock lobster!

      Let this be a warning to us all.

    • Yeah, I thought the article was about the rock group. I suddenly felt old, very, very old. Fortunately, it's not that bad. I'm just old.

      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        Yeah, I thought the article was about the rock group. I suddenly felt old, very, very old. Fortunately, it's not that bad. I'm just old.

        Some years back here on slashdot someone was posting a flame about "being a dinosaur from the 256 color era" and I was like "uhm... I grew up with the Commodore 64 and it had 16 colors". When you're older than the dinosaurs at 24, the scale is pretty much blown. Old and getting older, lol.

  • I guess the USAF expects to have the better fighter jets in the decades to come, so they will maintain air superiority - and then, it doesn't matter that your bombers are 80 year old tech. They probably consider this a more viable option than counting on the expensive B-2 being purchased in large numbers.

    Disclaimer: I am not an aviation or army expert. This is just something I was thinking about and you are welcome to extend or correct my thoughts.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:05AM (#39698659)

      This is exactly why 60 year old tech is still flying as a bomber. Air power is still king in conventional warfare, and once you've sent in your fleet of high-tech air-superiority and multirole/ground-attack fighters to clean out the AA threats, all you really require next is a very large flying tube that holds a lot of bombs. Hence, the B-52 is still around. You don't need a fancy stealth bomber because penetrating enemy airspace is better left to smaller stealthier craft - or you ignore the airplane altogether and use a cruise missile.

      If you think about it, the B-2 is the real antique here. The B-52 is just practical.

    • by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <richardprice@gm a i l . com> 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.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If you already have control of the airspace you don't need the stealth the B2 has, and the B2 has a disadvantage from an aerodynamic perspective - it requires computers to keep it under control at all times. The B52 is an example of the KISS strategy - it's rough but the only brain it really needs is the pilots so if something happens then it's up to the pilot to do his best. And computers has a tendency to age quickly - what was state of the art a decade ago is ancient today, and spare parts are hard to ge

    • 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).

      • 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?)

        • "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 life-limiting factor on the B-52 isn't the fuselage, it's the upper wing, which has a maximum life of 37,500 flight hours.

          Given how many flight hours are on the airframes (at *most* 21,000) and the rate of accumulation, the mid-2040s is when we can't maintain the required numbers.

      • 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.

        This is a well known paradox which is often called Theseus' paradox [wikipedia.org].

  • 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.

  • When your enemies live in caves and fire small arms it actually pays to fill their sky with the contrails of your bomber for hours on end. The Taliban can't shoot back at a B-52 so there is no need to hide.

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

    In the September 1965 National Geographic [flickr.com] 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?

  • 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.

  • by gelfling ( 6534 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:25AM (#39698931) Homepage Journal

    The lowly B-1-B is now the weapon of choice for Afghanistan because its higher speed allows a single plane to be used to cover the country end to end.

  • by MtViewGuy ( 197597 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @08:30AM (#39699211)

    I do think that we could see B-52's get additional upgrades, notably:

    1. An updated version of the Pratt & Whitney PW2000 series engine, probably uprated to 42,000 lb. thrust. Four of these engines will replace the eight P&W TF33's now used on the B-52H.

    2. More electronics upgrades--made easier by the fact the plane is big enough to accommodate them.

    3. With more powerful engines, we could see B-52's carry heavier bomb loads and still fly longer ranges.

  • 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.

  • Did anyone else read this and think it meant the band, The B-52's? I mean, Fred Schneider is looking kind of old, but geeze.

  • Memories of the cold war. You kids may not remember, but for a while there we and Russia were in a Mexican-standoff where if either of us had pulled the trigger it would have been the end of all life on Earth. On the bright side though, we didn't have to worry about being selected for an anal probe when going to the airport. You know. "The Good Old Days."
  • by Ronnie Coote ( 251572 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:58AM (#39700201)

    A military pilot called for a priority landing because his single-engine jet fighter was running "a bit peaked".
    Air traffic control told the fighter jock that he was number two behind a B-52 that had one engine shut down.
    "Ah", the pilot remarked, " the dreaded seven-engine approach".

  • by assertation ( 1255714 ) on Monday April 16, 2012 @11:41AM (#39700569)

    Reading the prices in the original post triggered Bill Maher's rant in my head over and over again how the U.S. spends more on "defense" than the rest of the world combined. Ugh, at the same time he has guests on his show like Regan's David Stockman who thinks the entire U.S. economy could collapse like Greece within a year.

    Do we really need to be spending 70 million to 3 billion dollars for bombers?

    The journalist Fareed Zakaria believes that lack of spending on education, lack of spending on infrastructure and a loss of the saving ethic are the real reasons the U.S. economy has declined over the past few decades.

    Maybe it is time to use some of the military budget to pay for things that make money.

...there can be no public or private virtue unless the foundation of action is the practice of truth. - George Jacob Holyoake