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."
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.
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.”