Its service began in the Cold War but won't end until the middle of the 21st century.
The B-52 began production in 1952, and today, there are 76 of the aircraft still serving the United States. Of the U.S. Air Force's three bomber types presently in service, only the B-52 will still be flying in 2050. No other aircraft in Air Force history will be able to claim a century of service.
To keep the B-52 effective, the Air Force is upgrading key components: primarily, its radar. The current radar, a hold-over from technology developed in the 1960s, hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. The B-52 will gain new eyes to find and fight the smaller, more agile adversaries of the the digital age.
“The last crew members of the B-52 have yet to be born,” said Pete Bloom, a former B-52 electronic warfare officer and current business development lead at Raytheon Intelligence & Space.
He speaks with the perspective of someone who flew the B-52 when it was already proven. When he came aboard the aircraft as a crew member in the 1980s, it had already logged more than 30 years of service.
Raytheon is harnessing technologies from the F-15’s APG-63(v)3 and APG-82 active electronically scanned array radars, along with the APG-79 from the Super Hornet and Growler, for the B-52 Radar Modernization Program.
John Ghosh, who flew combat missions over Libya in 2011, experienced the difference an upgrade makes when the U.S. Navy E-18G he operated went from a legacy radar to an AESA radar.
“You all of a sudden feel like you have better eyes,” said Ghosh, now a requirements manager at Raytheon Intelligence & Space. “You’re seeing farther, and what you’re seeing, you’re seeing accurately.”
The sensor upgrade will unlock new capabilities for the B-52, including maritime strike, not its traditional area of operation.
“We’ve come up with some good scenarios with non-traditional radar capabilities that we think the Air Force is interested in, and most of them come to play in war at sea,” Ghosh said.
Along with improved performance and awareness, a new AESA limits the risk of keeping aboard an older radar that can't be upgraded or supported during flight operations. The B-52 often flies for long distances and tens of hours; an AESA radar will be more reliable than the current mechanical sensor system.
“When they’re done fielding it," Ghosh said, “one of the things you are going to see is that because these other aircraft, like the F-15, F/A-18, have a road map out to the 2040s, 2050s, they are going to have that shared commonality in hardware that will allow them to use the same software.”