Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Building a Better BUFF

Perhaps no airplane personifies the US Air Force like the B-52 Stratofortress. The mighty bomber, powered by eight engines, immediately became one of the most fearsome combat aircraft ever built when it first flew in 1952. Over the next ten years, 744 "BUFFs" were built. They have seved with distinction ever since as a symbol of the Cold War, in addition to their heavy use over Vietnam, Iraq, Kosovo & Afghanistan.

By the late 60's, defense planners saw the end of the road for the B-52, fearing that it would be unable to penetrate Soviet defenses. The B-1 was designed as a faster replacement with a heavier payload, designed for low-altitude penetration underneath the Soviet radars. A series of delays, mostly political, ensured that the B-1 would not go into service until 1986. By that time, even the B-1 had become vulnerable to the most advanced radars, and the B-2 Stealth Bomber was necessary.

Yet the B-52 still found a way to soldier on. A solid airframe with room for newer avionics was adapted to carry more sophisticated weapons that could strike from a safe distance. This was demonstrated to great effect when B-52G bombers launched cruise missles on the first night of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. By the time of the September 11 attacks, B-52's had been equipped with satellite-guided JDAM bombs. For the first time, the Cold Warrior was able to drop small munitions on the front lines to support US and allied ground forces.

The military news & commentary site StrategyPage makes the interesting observation that the B-52 is the cheapest of the heavy bombers for performing airstrikes over Afghanistan. But one has to ask what can ever replace the BUFF once the airframes (the youngest are nearly 50 years old!) finally wear out. The Air Force will need a long-range aircraft, simple to maintain (i.e., no need for stealth or supersonic performance) with cavernous bomb bays to store large amounts of ordinance.

During the 1980's, Boeing actually responded to this need by proposing a modified 747 jumbo jet. The plane would be capable of carrying at least 70 cruise missiles internally. A decade later, Boeing studied a modified B-52 with its eight TF-33 engines replaced by four RB211 engines from old 757 airliners. The Air Force controversially shot the proposal down, arguing that the cost of installing the new engines didn't outweigh the reduced fuel & maintenance costs over the life of the B-52. (The open question was how long the Air Force intended to keep the B-52.)

While the Air Force continues to study the Next Generation Bomber and look towards stealthy flying wings that can fly without a human pilot, a modified long-range airliner (Boeing's 777 and 787, nd Airbus's A340 come to mind) would also be a prudent course of action. Today's airliners would probably be limited to carrying weapons internally, with little ground clearnace to carry them on underwing pylons. But they would have the range and endurance to loiter over their targets for half a day or more, and put bombs on targets of opportunity that arise. In future counter-insurgency wars similar to Afghanistan, speed and stealth are worthless in undefended airspace. A soldier in the field wants his air support planes to have persistence and precision in patrolling an area and dropping weapons on the enemy. The B-52 has been perfect for this mission, and a modified airliner may be the most economical way to keep this capability after the BUFF flies into the sunset.