America’s oldest and most capable strategic bomber, the B-52 Stratofortress – or the Big Ugly Fat Fellow (BUFF) as it is jokingly known – will soon undergo a massive upgrade with new electronics, avionics, radars, and engines, redesignated as the B-52J or the B-52K.
Interestingly, the APG-79B4 radar is nearly the same as the one on the export version of the F/A-18 Super Hornet carrier-borne fighter being considered by the Indian Navy.
According to Colonel Louis Ruscetta, senior material leader for the program, the only difference between the APG-79B4 – designated such for the B-52 upgrade program – and the one on the F/A-18 Super Hornet is that the array is turned “upside down” so that it can look more to the ground than the sky, according to a report Air Force Mag.
The B-52 today is still flying with the mechanically scanned radar of the 1960s, and the migration to the newer radar and other upgrades will bring it on par with the under-development B-21 Raiders.
The Raider and the B-52 will be the two-bomber fleet for at least the next three decades until the 2050s. There are currently 58 B-52s in service today, with another 18 in reserve and a dozen in long-term storage, from the total 744 that were built.
The “fighter-quality” Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar will give the B-52 greater air-to-ground detection, range, tracking, and precise weapons delivery and fire-control capability. All the current B-52s in the US Air Force inventory are designated as B-52H after progressing from B-52G in the 1960s, when they received the Pratt and Whitney TF33 engine.
The latest upgrade package involves, apart from the new Rolls Royce F130 engines, newer generators, communications suites, pylons, cockpit displays, and the deletion of one crew member station.
Oldest & Longest Serving
The hulking eight-engine B-52s first flew in 1952 with a payload capacity of 31,751 kilograms with a range of 14,162 kilometers (without aerial refueling). While its primary goal is strategic bombing, it can also undertake the firing of cruise missiles, various drop bombs, carpet bombs, guided bombs, and nuclear-tipped missiles. B-52s were also used to test the under-development Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) hypersonic missile for its first captive carry trials in late 2019.
The heavy bomber has credible tactical strike capabilities and operational availability, which has not degraded since they were minimally used in Iraq and Afghanistan, unlike the B-2 Spirit and the B-1 Lancer.
The last two aircrafts’ airframes and systems had undergone extensive wear and tear. This is also why the BUFF will outlive the B-2 Spirit and the B-1 Lancer with nearly a century of service, despite the two being introduced several decades after.
Even more poetically, the B-52’s counterpart in Russia, the Tupolev Tu-95′ Bear’, remains in service with the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) when it entered service just after World War 2.
Indian Carrier-Borne Fighter Jet
The F/A-18 Super Hornet Block-III has been reported to have pleased Indian Navy fighter pilots greater than the Rafale Marine in the 57-jet MRCBF program and demonstrated its ability to take off the curved ski-jumps of Indian aircraft carriers.
On July 20 this year, a Hornet took off from the Shore-Based Testing Facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa in Goa, a mock ski jump replicating the ski ramp’s dimensions on Indian aircraft carriers.
The Directorate of Naval Air Staff issued a Request for Information (RFI) of the MRCBF procurement in January 2017, as the current fleet of the Russian-origin MiG-29Ks is set to be phased out in 2034.
The MiGs operate from the INS Vikramaditya, India’s sole operational aircraft carrier. At the same time, the under-development Twin-Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF), which is expected to arrive by 2032, is slated to operate from the INS Vikrant.
The Vikrant is undergoing sea trials after being launched from the Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL).
Multirole Carrier Borne Fighter Program is seen as a stop-gap arrangement until the TEDBF arrives and the MiGs retire. A technical point in favor of the F/A-18 has been its folding wings that would save space around it in a carrier and safely be loaded on and off its elevators.
Boeing, the manufacturer of the F/A-18, has offered enticing proposals to include Indian companies and small and medium-scale enterprises (MSME) as a part of their global manufacturing and supply chain, appealing to the government’s ‘Make in India’ call.