Up to $11.9B for B-52H Maintenance & Modernization
Officially, it’s the B-52H Stratofortress. Unofficially, it’s the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat F
- cker). Either way, this subsonic heavy bomber remains the mainstay of the U.S. strategic fleet after more than 50 years of service. A total of 102 B-52H bombers were delivered from FY 1961-1963, and 94 were still on the books as of May 2009, flying mostly from Barksdale AFB, LA and Minot AFB, ND. Of these, 18 are slated for retirement, leaving a planned fleet of 76. By the time that fleet retires in the 2030s, many will be around 70 years old.
The B-52H can’t be flown against heavy enemy air defenses, but a steady array of upgrades have kept the aircraft relevant to follow-on strikes and current wars, where its long time on station and precision weapons have made the BUFF beautiful. Those changes have included advanced communications, GPS guided weapons, advanced targeting pods, and more. The USAF isn’t done yet adding new features, and maintenance remains a challenge for an aircraft fleet that’s always older than its pilots. All of these things require contracts, and the B-52H fleet has several of them underway. So, how does 2010’s 8-year, $11.9 billion umbrella contract fit in…?
At the moment, there are at least 3 major contracts underway for the B-52H fleet.
The CONECT (Combat NEtwork Communications Technology) contract was issued in April 2005, and could be worth up to $500 million. CONECT offers a series of upgrades that tie the B-52s into the USAF’s current communications networks. Its most significant combat improvement is the ability to receive new missions in flight, and re-target weapons in the middle of a mission. Ultimately, however, CONECT is an interim contract en route to deeper modernizations. First flight of a refurbished B-52 took place in May 2009. The program accomplished its first test flight on Jan 17/10, and plans further tests in 2011.
Execution of CONECT’s development would remain under the current contract until it’s done, but full production, or any future communications upgrades would apparently fall under the $11.9 billion September 2010 IDIQ.
The 12-year, $150 million SWING (Smart Weapons Integration Next Generation) contract came into force in June 2006. Under this contract, Boeing performs work to integrate new ordnance on the B-52 fleet, from MALD unmanned decoys, to Sniper ATP surveillance and targeting pods, to AGM-158 JASSM missiles and beyond. Most of this work is software related, and the most important aspect of SWING was adding the Universal Armament Interface as a sort of weapons Application Programming Interface, in order to make integration of future weapons much easier.
Work under the SWING contract will continue in parallel with the new September 2010 contract.
In June 2009, the US Air Force issued the latest B-52 Engineering Sustainment Program (ESP) contract for the fleet, with a 10-year, $750 million ceiling.
There are some important things missing from ESP, however, such as spare parts, modernizations or fleet-wide changes outside of CONECT or SWING, etc. All of those things will fall under the September 2010 contract instead, and so will some previous ESP efforts.
The Sept 2010 contract’s initial spending surprisingly modest – the $600,000 minimum order, as the 1st payment for a $2.3 million order of 16 Evolutionary Data Link (EDL) Phase III kits, plus some basic engineering support through the end of February 2012. As noted above, the $11.9 billion is really a ceiling amount for a lot of other efforts, which may or may not go forward. If they do go forward, however, there’s an umbrella contract ready with all the terms worked out.
Several well-known upgrades are under consideration for the B-52 fleet, but haven’t been approved and funded yet. USAF spokesman Lt. Col. Jack Miller has told DoD Buzz that it could cover things like:
“Combat Networks Communication Technology (CONECT) production, Extremely High Frequency (EHF) engineering development and production, Strategic Radar Replacement development and production, Tactical Data Link engineering studies, MIL-STD-1760 Internal Weapons Bay production, trade studies, and other programs critical to maintaining B-52 mission capability out to the year 2040.”
The Strategic Radar Replacement Program he mentions would install advanced new radars that could greatly improve the B-52’s ground and aerial surveillance capabilities, identifying targets at long ranges. New radar technologies could also assist with low-level flight, and reduce long-term maintenance costs.
Another oft-discussed upgrade is the on-again, off-again Stand Off Jammer program, which would turn some B-52s into very powerful, very long range, very long endurance electronic warfare aircraft that could blind even sophisticated enemy air defenses; locate, classify, analyze, or jam radar or radio signals; or even prevent remote detonation of IED land mines in a given area. B-52 SOJ has been started twice, and suspended twice for lack of funding.
While the USAF has done some necessary re-wiring work, a deep re-wiring akin to the C-5 AMP program is logical at some point, especially in conjunction with upgraded power generation on board to handle all of the new electronics. Any B-52 SOJ program would almost have to do this, and a radar improvement contract may require it as well, but it’s certain that the whole fleet will need this sooner or later. It’s very time-consuming work, but the good news is that some modern ultra-high capacity wiring has also become self-diagnosing, removing one of the biggest maintenance headaches in any airplane.
In a similar vein, but with even more immediate benefits, there has long been talk of re-engining the B-52H fleet, swapping out the ancient and hard to maintain JT3D/TF33 engines with modern turbofans that would dramatically improve performance, fuel efficiency, strike range, and maintainability. The USAF has experience with the benefits and pitfalls of these conversions, having made these kinds of upgrades to its KC-135 tanker fleet to produce the KC-135R, moved forward with re-engining the related E-8C JSTARS fleet of land battle surveillance and control aircraft, and endured the challenges of the C-5M RERP Super Galaxy program for some of its huge aerial transports.
Of course, before major steps like these can be taken, the USAF will need engineering studies. ESP doesn’t cover that, but as Lt. Col. Miller noted, the September 2010 contract does. It would also cover integration and installation of these upgrades into the B-52 fleet, as decisions are made to go forward with specific items.
Sept 29/10: Boeing in Wichita, KS receives a sole-source indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract to support the USAF’s B-52H fleet, including modernization work. It could be worth up to $11.9 billion over an 8-year period, but no funds have been committed yet by the ASC/WWVK at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, OH. “Individual delivery orders will be issued through three contracting activities” (FA8628-10-D-1000). See also: Boeing.
- USAF Factsheets – B-52H Stratofortress
- Air Force Technology – B-52H Stratofortress Long-Range Multirole Bomber, USA
- DoD Buzz (Oct 7/10) – Why the B-52 Got $11.9 Billion
- ARINC (March 31/10) – ARINC Will Deploy Its Airborne SMARRT System for Battlefield Awareness at JEFX 2010 Exercises . Good example of the types of ongoing improvements under consideration.
- DID – CONECT: B-52H Receiving a Communications Upgrade.
- DID (Jan 13/10) – Boeing Wins $750M to Support the B-52H Fleet. This is ESP.
- DID (July 10/06) – MUSTANG Aims to Check-Out B-52s Faster
- DID (June 29/06) – $150M to Integrate New Weapons on the USA’s B-52 Bombers (updated). This is SWING.
- Mechanical Engineering – CIME (Jan 1/90) – The B-52 – engineered to endure