The B-52 has only been able to carry smart weapons on its external pylons, with its internal weapons bay being relegated to nuclear and dumb bombs, as well as some older cruise missiles. Now, the iconic 60 year old Stratofortress is finally getting a new ‘smart’ rotary weapons rack and other upgrades that will more than double its smart weapons punch.
You could say that the B-52’s empty weapons bay has been the most under-utilized real estate in the entire USAF. Even as the B-52’s utility morphed over the decades (from a nuclear interdiction option, to a carpet bomber, to a nuclear cruise missile carrier, to a conventional cruise missile carrier, to a smart bomb lobber, to a precision close air support platform) the big bomber’s cavernous belly has become more and more of an empty afterthought.
Although having the B-52 lug its smart bombs on its large inboard weapons pylons has not kept it out of the fight, this configuration has hurt the gas guzzling behemoth’s fuel economy and range and has left great potential on the table, especially in an age of anti-access warfare and advanced standoff weaponry.
For almost a decade and a half, the USAF’s B-52Hs have delivered GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions and laser guided bombs from their perches high above the Hindu Kush Mountains and the deserts of Mesopotamia, acting as arsenal ships for ground forces tens of thousands of feet below. And on almost every one of these missions their bellies were empty.
The B-52’s internal weapons bays and weapons racks were never wired for modern munitions. The all-important 1760 Aircraft/Store Electrical Interconnection System, which allows the crew to program modern weapons in flight, came long after even the B-52s AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missiles were put into service. This is finally changing, with a program called the “1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade.”
This upgrade will see the B-52H’s old cruise missile racks rebuilt and rewired to 1760 data-bus electronic interface standards. These revitalized rotary weapons racks are called Conventional Rotary Launchers (CRL) and they are currently being tested with the 419th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards AFB.
Under the first phase of this upgrade, the Conventional Rotary Launcher will be able to hold 24 GBU-38 500lb JDAMs or a whopping 20 of the GBU-31 2,000lb JDAMs. Laser guided JDAMs and other smart gravity and glide bombs will follow soon after. Yet short-range weapons will not be the CRL’s only claim to combat fame. Soon, the launcher will be able to sling gobs of stand-off weapons such as the stealthy AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and the very guileful Miniture Air Launched Decoy Jammers (MALD-J). What this means is that a single B-52H could fly thousands of miles around the globe, approach the outer edge of an enemy’s air defenses and let loose a full on barrage of stealth cruise missiles and smart cruise decoys, then turn around to cruise back to base for more weapons and a new crew.
Think of it as a very smart kamikaze air force in a box, or, well, a bomb bay.
Such a capability lends credence to the fact that advanced standoff weaponry can take the place of expensive manned platforms when it comes to the first days of war against a credible enemy. This mindset has been growing since the 1970s and the B-52 is now turning into the flexible arsenal ship that has been proposed in various forms over the years. Yet, even with a manned force pushing an attack into highly defended enemy airspace, the B-52 could fill its belly and external hardpoints with gobs of MALD-Js, basically acting as a mothership for a fake aerial invasion force, one that will distract, disrupt and the blind the enemy from detecting the real strike force.
The USAF and Boeing team behind the BUFF’s (Big Ugly Fat Fucker is the B-52’s humble nickname) weapons bay upgrade say that soon a single Conventional Rotary Launcher will be able to hold multiple types of munitions, which will allow mission planners and weaponeers to pick the perfect cocktail of weaponry for a given mission or target set. For instance, a B-52H assigned to close air support duties may have its CRL loaded a third full of 500lb laser JDAMs, a third full of large 1,000 JDAMs and the rest filled with deadly CBU-105 Sensor Fused Weapons.
In the future, a B-52 assigned to anti-ship/littoral warfare targets may sport half a rack of stealthy JASSMs, for hitting key port facilities, while the other half is full of the JASSM’s stealthy anti-ship missile cousin, the Long-Rang Anti Ship Missile (LRASM), used for hitting ships guarding the port itself. Basically, a handful of B-52s loaded out in such a fashion could destroy an enemy’s strategic port facilities and nearby combat ships without ever even traveling within range of the enemy’s air defenses.
Alongside the B-52s weapons bay upgrade, the BUFFs will also be getting a new satallite communications and data-link system known as Combat Network Communications Technology, or CONECT for short. This system will allow B-52 crews to get mission updates and detailed re-tasking orders while they are already on the way to their targets. This will make the B-52 a reactive, tactical weapon system instead of more of a strategic one. CONECT will also be paired with a new windows-based mission planning software and interface for the crew to use so that they can re-plan missions on the fly based on new targeting or threat info sent to them via CONECT or collected by their own and third party sensors.
Such a system will make the deadlier BUFFs much more effective in a modern ‘netcentric’ battlespace. For instance, let’s take the aforementioned mission where a flight of B-52s are tasked with taking out an enemy’s port facilities and the ships that guard it as an example. As the B-52s are five hours out from their launch points, radar, signals and image intelligence collected by a stealthy High-Altitude Long-Endurance unmanned aircraft, orbiting at 70,000 feet and 100 miles from the targeted port in question, detects a string of ships leaving the port and classifies them as enemy surface combatants. Commanders on the ground receive this data and immediately re-task the inbound B-52s to attack the flotilla, not the lower priority port which is now empty.
The B-52s can continuously receive updates from the high-flying UAV as to the flotilla’s coordinates so that they can reprogram their LRASM anti-ship missiles. By the time the B-52s arrive within launch range, the enemy ship formation is now 120 miles south of the originally targeted port. Another enemy port is now within closer sailing distance of the enemy flotilla, and commanders on the ground think that any of these enemy ships that can still make their own way once the LRASMs have done their job will try to enter that port for safety and repairs. As a result, the B-52s are ordered to retarget their JASSMs at a long bridge that spans the narrow entry into this port in hopes of denying these enemy ships entry. This will also leave them sitting ducks for follow-on attacks.
A few hundred miles from their new targets, now far south of the originally targeted port, the B-52s receive final coordinates from the stealth UAV and space-based systems that are tracking the flotilla. The B-52s ripple off their anti-ship missiles along with a handful of MALD-J decoys to play havoc on the flotilla’s radar and communications systems. The B-52s, now with half their stores gone, are now under the cover of F-22 Raptor’s launched from an island base 1,000 miles away and supported by a ‘tanker bridge’ to the battlespace and back. The B-52 crews wait to hear the assessment of their attacks while under the Raptor’s protective umbrella.
The HALE stealth drone reports that only five radar signatures out of a dozen and half that were moving at high-speed before the missiles arrived on target continue to move, those that are not moving are also showing a heavy infrared signature. They are on fire. Those five enemy ships that survived the initial LRASM attack are moving at high-speed to the nearest port, just as commanders on the ground had guessed.
The B-52s only have 30 minutes of fighter escort before the F-22s have to return to the tanker, so they rapidly put their pre-programmed plan into play, rippling off their JASSMs at the bridge in question. They then turn towards friendly airspace with their F-22s escorts. Within two hours a report comes through the B-52’s CONECT terminal showing satellite imagery depicting the targeted bridge, at least what is left of it, its span having dropped in the channel, blocking transit of the surviving ships into the enemy’s port.
Meanwhile, as the original B-52 attack force is safely on their way back home, another stream of backup B-52s are making their way toward their newly programmed targets. Originally, they had the same target list of the first attacking force, but like it, the follow-on B-52 assault force has had their plan changed on the fly. This time, their primary targets are a handful of enemy surface combatants sitting idle by a port whose entrance is blocked by a dropped bridge-span, along with the port’s facilities, including a large fuel farm and drydock. The Raptors will be back to cover their attack once they refuel, just as they did with the first group of B-52s.
This is just a snapshot of the fluid nature of air warfare in 21st century, where one of the most deadly and effective weapons remains the oldest jet flying in active USAF service. It also reminds us of this antique bomber’s latent potential. Other upgrades could bring new efficiency and capabilities to the long paid-for jets. New engines, a large AESA radar system, standoff jamming arrays, the ability to carry throngs of small diameter bombs and other upgrades could continue to pump new life into the geriatric bombers, bringing their planned end of service date into doubt.
In the end the B-52 could become so deadly, tactically agile and relevant that it could live well past its 100th birthday, continuing towards the latter half of the century as America’s go-to weapons and sensors truck. Its long awaited internal smart bomb rack and updated satellite communications system maybe just the beginning of the BUFF’s powerful second wind.
Photos/Source via DoD
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com