The B-52’s Devastating New Weapons Upgrade Is Already Kicking Ass In The Middle East

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A B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 307th Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, La., approaches the refueling boom of a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., during an air refueling training exercise, May 15, 2014.
Photo via DoD

The B-52 Stratofortress may be old enough to buy a senior ticket at the movies, but the legendary long-range strategic bomber is still pushing the envelope: On Dec. 12, Resolute Support commander Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch announced that a B-52 conducting bombing sorties out of Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, dropped the most precision munitions ever deployed from the airframe during a combat mission, an encouraging sign of what Air Force’s expensive modernization timeline holds for the tried-and-true airframe.


This particular B-52 has been flying combat missions as part of both Resolute Support and Operation Inherent Resolve since April 2016. But the new milestone comes thanks to a critical upgrade, the brand-new Conventional Rotary Launcher (CRL) — a munitions system designed around an expanded payload of GPS-guided ordnance and other “smart” bombs. According to Air Force personnel, the inclusion of new CRLs will boost the B-52’s weapons capacity by a whopping 67%.

“Before these launchers, the B-52 was not capable of carrying smart weapons internally,” Air Forces Strategic (AFSTRAT) Armament Systems manager Master Sgt. Adam Levandowski said in November. “Now each CRL allows for internal carriage, which adds an additional eight smart bombs per aircraft.”

The impact of the ordnance upgrade was immediately apparent, according to the Air Force. The new CRL system was flown from Barksdale AFB to Al Udeid on a C-5M Super Galaxy on Nov. 6, and declared combat-ready two weeks later on Nov. 20 — meaning that, amid the high operational tempo that characterizes airpower operations run out of Al Udeid, the B-52 shattered the airframe six-decade-old bombing record in just over a week.

“So far, we've used B-52s with their new conventional rotary launcher," Bunch told reporters gathered at the Pentagon in a Dec. 12 video conference from Kabul. "Of note, it was the… largest number of precision munitions ever dropped from a B-52."

Related: The Air Force Is Trying To Fix One Of The B-52's Major Weaknesses »

Air Forces Central Command spokeswoman Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli told Military.com that, in the campaign’s first night alone, B-52s deployed some 19 bombs upgraded with the Department of Defense’s preferred Joint Direct Attack Munition guidance kits against a critical Taliban narcotics hub in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Annicelli said that the first release of munitions took place against ISIS fighters in Iraq on Nov. 18, days before the official announcement of the CRL-equipped B-52’s combat readiness, but the Helmand sortie “was the first use of the CRL in a major, deliberately planned operation."

AFCENT officials told Military.com that B-52s have deployed around 1,500 weapons since the beginning of 2017, half of them unguided. AFGSC, AFCENT, CENTCOM did not immediately respond to requests from Task & Purpose for details regarding sorties flown and munitions deployed by B-52s in the CENTCOM area of operations in November 2017.

A U.S. Air Force chart details conventional ordnance and munitions deliverable from the internal weapons bay upgrade (IWBU) currently in development as part of Air Force Global Strike Command's B-52 modernization program.Chart via DoD

Increased capacity for precision munitions, despite the unavoidable risks of civilian casualties, is good news for CENTCOM’s  Combined Air Operations Center (COAC) at Al-Udeid, which oversees air operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and 18 other countries throughout the region. But the success of the CRL downrange also marks a major milestone for Air Force Global Strike Division’s plans to keep the long-range bomber the air through its 100th birthday, in 2050.

The B-52 overhaul has been a years-long project. In 2004, AFGSC launched $260 million the B-52 Avionics Midlife Improvement program with Lockheed Martin as “the biggest improvement to the B-52 in 12-15 years.” But in 2010, the Air Force laid out a more expansive B-52 overhaul plan: an eye-popping $11.9 billion umbrella contract awarded to Boeing, including a fleet-wide makeover of tactical datalinks and situational awareness capabilities under the Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) program — meant to replace the retro cathode-ray displays that have nestled in the airframes' interior since the 1960s.

Related: How The Air Force Plans To Keep The Legendary B-52 Stratofortress Flying For 100 Years »

But the most tangible result of the Air Force’s ambitious modernization plan — in terms of “raining down violence across a large area,” as Matt Weingart, a weapons program development manager at Lawrence Livermore, once told me — is the 1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade (IWBU), designed to convert carrying capacity previously devoted to conventional “dumb” munitions for “smart” bomb-capable systems. And CRL is the heart and soul of that upgrade, capable of rocking 24 500-pound GBU-38  laser-guided JDAMs, or 20 2,000 pound GBU-31s, as well as the eight long-range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) and other mission-specific munitions.

“The B-52 used to carry JDAM on the wing pylons, but now we can carry far more internally and get GPS data directly from the bomber itself,” AFGSC acquisition chief Eric Single told Task & Purpose in a May interview. “That’s huge. Right now, the B-52 carries the largest range of munitions of any platform out there. This just allows you to carry more.”

A U.S. Air Force chart details the timeline for the internal weapons bay upgrade's (IWBUY) expanded smart munitions capability as part of Air Force Global Strike Command's B-52 modernization programChart via DoD

Integrating the new CRL system was no picnic: It entailed basically rebuilding and rewiring conventional rotary cruise-missile racks to the now-ubiquitous 1760 aviation electronic interface standards. Engineering and weapons personnel with the 2nd Munitions Squadron at Barksdale AFB have been rewiring and retrofitting the B-52 since at least May 2016, when the 96th Bomb Squadron became the first operational B-52 squadron to employ the IWBU upgrade’s initial stage during a local training mission near the base.

It’s unclear when the remaining B-52 fleet may receive the weapons upgrade: Only 76 of the 742 B-52 models that rolled off the assembly line between 1954 and 1963 remain in service, most of them B-52H bombers flying missions out of AFGSC hubs at Barksdale and Minot Air Force Base. But if the B-52’s reported performance at the close of November is any indication, the long-range bomber is well on its way to spending a century ruling the skies.

“We still rely heavily on it,” Single told Task & Purpose of the bomber’s future in May. “B-52s are heavily in the fight, every day, and they will be for years to come.”

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Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.

When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

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