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Strategic bombers will continue to matter in the geopolitical balance as "weapons of mass deterrence"

The U.S. fleet of B-52 bombers is set to receive a series of upgrades that will boost its working life at least until the 2050s. By then, the B-52 will have been flying for nearly 90 years, since its takeoff during Eisenhower's presidency. This will make him, by far, the model of the aircraft that will have been flying the longest with its main operator, in this case the USAF.

A B-52G when in service

▲ A B-52G when in service [USAF]

article / Jairo Císcar Ruiz

The words "strategic bomber" may sound like the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and spy planes, but today it's a concept that's at its disposal. agenda despite sounding very far away. It is true that the status strategic aviation is constrained by the agreement of 2010 (START III), which restricts deployed nuclear weapon delivery to 700. These means of delivery include strategic bombers, ICBMs (intercontinental missiles) and SLBMs (submarine launches). Despite the fact that both Russia and the U.S. have now significantly reduced the issue of its bombers (the US has "only" 176), strategic weapons (and with it, bombers) will continue to be a fundamental part of the geopolitical balance in international relations.

There are only 3 countries in the world that have strategic bombers in their arsenal, the US, Russia and China (although the Chinese Xian H-6 is well below its Russian and American counterparts), and this shortage of aircraft makes them so prized and a differentiator on the battlefield. But it is not only on the battlefield that these aircraft cause an imbalance, but they especially stand out in the field of international relations as "weapons of mass deterrence".

A strategic bomber is an aircraft designed not for the battlefield directly, but to penetrate enemy territory and attack both strategic targets (instructions military headquarters, bunkers...) as critical locations for a country's war effort. The fact that a country has such an aircraft in its fleet of aircraft is clearly a deterrent to potential enemies. Both Russia and the U.S. – especially the latter country – are able to permanently have their bombers in the air (thanks to in-flight refueling) loaded with up to almost 32 tons of weaponry, with a flight duration only restricted to the endurance capacity of the crew. In this "diplomacy of fear", strategic bombers will continue to be prominent elements in the field of geostrategy and the balance of forces at the global level. The US is fully aware of this and is therefore embarking on a series of ambitious plans to continue to enjoy air and geostrategic superiority. Of these plans, one of the newest and, perhaps, most eagerly awaited is the advertisement that American B-52s will continue to fly until at least 2050.

Although it was assumed that this would be the case, the confirmation given by the US Air Force is no less surprising: the fleet of active B-52s is going to receive a series of improvements that will boost its active life until at least the 2050s. It wouldn't be too much news B taking into account that it is common to approve improvement packages, either avionics or software to increase the useful life of aircraft in service, but the reality is that the last B-52 Stratofortress left the Boeing assembly plant in Wichita (Kansas) in 1962. In other words, by 2050 the entire fleet would have been flying for nearly 90 years, which would make it by far the world's largest fleet in the world. model of the aircraft that will have been flying the longest with its main operator, in this case the USAF.

Versatility, deterrent effect and lower operating cost

But can an aircraft that was put into service from 1955, with Eisenhower as president, stand up to new bomber models, such as the B-2 or the future B-21 Raider? Is the enormous outlay that the government intends to make justifiable? congress of the U.S.? It is estimated that it could spend 11,000 million on engines alone; Almost €300 million have been approved for the 2019 financial year.

The answer is yes. Due to its strategic versatility, its deterrent effect and its comparatively low operating cost, the B-52 has become a vital aircraft for the United States.

Its versatility in combat has been long tested, since its "debut" in the Vietnam War, where it was the protagonist of carpet bombings (it is capable of launching more than 32 tons of explosives). As time progressed, it proved that it could not only drop bombs, but also long-range missiles such as the AGM-158 JASSM or the Harpoon anti-ship missile. Its great weapons capacity makes it one of the flagship long-range attack aircraft of the United States. This has been attested in the mission statement In which, until being relieved by the B-1, the B-52s flew 1,850 combat missions, dropping some 12,000 bombs, something that was fundamental to the victory over Daesh in Mosul.

Speaking of long distance is precisely where the B-52 is overwhelming: without refueling, a B-52 can fly more than 15,000 km, having flown 20,000 km in extraordinary situations. This offers a global attack capability, since in the event of refueling, only the crew's own endurance would prevent them from being in flight indefinitely. This capability makes them ideal not only for bombing from instructions Not only to participate in search tasks, being able to carry out a "scan" of 364,000 km2 between two aircraft in two hours. This is vital for use by the U.S. Navy in anti-submarine missions or to detect enemy navies.

The same parameters and advantages apply to the use of the B-52 as a "massive" deterrent. Initially created to permanently have a squadron in flight armed with nuclear bombs, and thus guarantee an immediate response to any aggression, the aircraft stationed in Guam are now used as part of the U.S. tactic of free passage through the international waters of the South China Sea. There have also been employee as permanent air support in areas of particular risk such as the Korengal Valley, in Afghanistan, or at the beginning of the war itself, in Tora Bora. By having a B-52 on standby, troops could have air support that would otherwise take time to arrive in a few moments (and for a long time).

Another indisputable advantage of these aircraft is their relatively low cost in proportion to the other bombers in the U.S. fleet. First of all, it should be clarified that the cost per flight hour is not only the fuel used, but also the cost of maintenance, spare parts, etc. It is true that these theoretical prices are not added to the cost of ammunition (which can amount to tens of millions) or other variables such as the salary of pilots, mechanics, insurance costs, cost of insurance, etc. car park in hangars or other variables that are classified, but they do serve to give us a global view of their operating cost. The B-52s cost the U.S. taxpayer about $70,000 per hour. It may seem like an extraordinarily high price, but its "sibling" the B-2 fetches $130,000 an hour. Despite being exorbitant prices for an army like the Spanish (Eurofighters cost about $15,000/hour), for the budget is not significant (Trump aims to reach $680 billion in U.S. dollars). budget).

 

A B-52H after being in-flight refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker over Afghanistan

 A B-52H after being in-flight refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker over Afghanistan [USAF]

 

Engine refurbishment

We have seen that the B-52, that Big Ugly Fat Fellow as it is affectionately nicknamed by its crews, may continue to be a vector to be reckoned with in the air for years to come, but the USAF does not want it to become a supporting actor, but to remain the main actor. To this end, it has created the Commercial Engine Reengineering Program (CERP) to replace the old original engines. The TF33 is now more than 50 years old, and in the last 20 years its cost has doubled, due to the lack of spare parts (currently they have to cannibalize the parts of retired engines) and their inefficient consumption. It should not be forgotten that it has 8 engines, so consumption is not a trivial matter. To replace them, the USAF has opened a competition that should be decided from mid-2019. At the moment, the USAF's specifications aim to achieve engines that are at least 25% more efficient and take 5 times longer to need repair, which would mean a 30-year saving (until 2050) of about 10,000 million dollars. With a very juicy contract (there is talk of the order of 11,000 million dollars to replace the 650 engines of the B-52 fleet), the large military aviation companies have begun to present their proposals, including Pratt & Whitney (with the PW815), General Electric (with the new Passport Advanced Turbofan) and Rolls-Royce (with the Pearl or the BR735). Other flagships of the aeronautical industry are pending their proposals.

But not only the engines will benefit from the improvements and investment, but precisely the purchase of new engines will make it necessary to change the instrumentation of the cockpit: in this way, they will also take advantage of the remodeling to change the old analogue indicators and cathode ray screens for the modern multifunctional screens that we see in any fighter today. USAF assistant secretary for procurement William Roper has also commented that new ejection seats are being considered.

Beyond speculation, it is certain that in the framework of the Radar Modernization Program (RMP), $817 million will be invested between fiscal years 2019 and 2023 in the purchase of new radar systems to replace the APQ-166 from the 1960s. New tactical software will also be purchased. data Link 16, as it is the only USAF aircraft that does not have it incorporated and is vital to carry out joint operations, both within the US military itself and with European NATO armies.

In the future, the software and the aircraft itself will be adapted to increase its offensive capabilities, as was already done with the IWBU program, which increased its cargo capacity in the hold by 67%. One of the main goals of offensive remodeling is to be able to carry at least one GBU-43/b (or MOAB; Mother of all bombs; the world's most powerful non-nuclear bomb). To this end, a new wing pylon is being designed that can support 9,000 kilos of weight. Looking ahead, the B-52 will be able to carry hypersonic missiles, but that won't be seen until the mid-2020s at the earliest.

In this way, the USAF aims to ensure that the B-52 Stratofortress remains the A option in its fleet when it comes to heavy bombing. Therefore, the B-52 will continue to be a fundamental strategic-military factor for understanding international relations in the years to come. No one would have claimed in 1955 that that plane, no matter how good it was, could still fly until a hundred years later. There are still 31 years to go, but we'll see what the B-52 has in store for us. subject fat and ugly" that he has become, thanks to his magnificent design and construction, in the Dean of bomber planes: the B-52 (arguably) the best bomber in the world.

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