Hypersonic Missile-Armed B-52: A Potential Flight to 2050 for the Time-Tested Classic Bomber
The Air Force B-52 may wind up flying for close to 100 years, given the extent and longevity of ongoing upgrades to the Vietnam-era classic bomber.
Despite their age, the airframes themselves have remained viable for decades, Air Force program managers explain, and with some upgrades and fuselage reinforcement, they are solid enough to fly for decades into the future. However, life-extended B-52s will not merely fly but also operate with vastly enhanced computing, communications, electronics, sensors and weaponry due to a series of technological upgrades.
B-52 May Fly to 2050
The many B-52 modernization efforts have expanded the mission scope for the aircraft, increased its lethality and, perhaps most of all, generated the ability for a B-52 to operate as a key node within a larger, networked multi domain sphere of combat operations.
In recent years, the B-52 has been upgraded with a next-generation digital radio system called CONECT which enables real-time, in-flight intelligence information sharing. This has been paradigm-changing for B-52 crews as they are no longer restricted to predetermined mission specifics but can instead receive intelligence updates in-flight such as new targets or changing threat information. The aircraft has also been outfitted with a more fuel-efficient commercial engine.
The B-52 has also received an Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade which substantially enhances the aircraft’s weapons carrying capacity to include the ability to fire more JDAMS, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) a jammer variant of the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD-J).
Along with an ability to fire as many as eight different “J-Series” bombs, the upgraded B-52 will also fire a now-in-development nuclear-capable Long Range Standoff Missile and even hypersonic weapons as well. In 2021, the Air Force shot the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, a hypersonic weapon which received targeting data from sensors 1,000 miles away.
Given all this, the question then becomes … is there a limit to how much the B-52 can be upgraded? Is there a point at which the massively upgraded bomber will ultimately become obsolete? Provided the airframes remain viable or able to be reinforced, the answer to this may simply be a “very long time.” Sure enough today’s B-52 is entirely different from the 1960s platform which primarily dropped unguided or “dumb” bombs across wide swaths of territory and even “carpet bombed” certain critical areas.
Today’s B-52 can fire nuclear weapons, long-range cruise missiles, precision-guided bombs and function as an air-mobile “bomb truck” arsenal plane of sorts.
The largest and potentially most impactful innovation of great consequence to the B-52 may be its growing ability to focus as a drone-launching “mother ship,” meaning a platform able to launch and recover drones from the air. This enables multi-node forward reconnaissance operations as well as an ability to test enemy air defenses, blanket areas with ISR, paint or find targets for other aircraft and even deliver weapons when directed by a human.
As for a B-52’s limitations, one might simply consider its potential vulnerability. As a large, visible “non-stealthy” aircraft easily found by enemy weapons systems, the B-52 is certainly not well positioned to thrive in what Air Force leaders describe as a “contested” environment, as it might easily fall prey to enemy air defenses or other enemy weapons.
This is why the ability to launch drones, engage in long-range multi-node mesh networking and deliver massive amounts of ordnance once cleared above a hostile area become so critical to the longevity and continued relevance of the B-52.
Should a B-52 be able to launch and operate small numbers of drones from safe stand-off distances, deliver long-range precision weaponry from beyond range of enemy attack or deliver massive amounts of lethal, devastating bomb attacks over an area once air supremacy is established. The B-52 may well fly for decades more into the future.