The B-52 Stratofortress ain’t new. The first one flew nearly seventy years ago in 1952. The last ones were built ten years later. But just because it’s already been around for decades doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot more fight left in it. At least General Electric seems to think so.
General Electric is trying to convince the Air Force and congressional bean counters that its re-engining program could extend the lifespan of the B-52 platform more than seventy years into the future. The Air Force has already planned to keep the planes in the air through the 2040s even as the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber comes into service as well, but General Electric thinks the B-52 has a little more life left in it to give. Nearly sixty more years worth, to be exact.
GE comes after the Air Force submitted a request for bids to re-engine the bombers to jet engine manufacturers earlier this year in April, with the winner expected to implement its plan once a vendor is chosen next year. GE isn’t alone in competing. Rolls Royce and original engine B-52 supplier Pratt & Whitney are both looking for a piece of the action as well.
Until now, B-52s have been powered by Pratt & Whitney TF33 engines that aren’t dissimilar to what you’d find on a Boeing 707. Old as they are, plans to replace the TF33s have been floated and sunk repeatedly in the past. The last time discussions about re-engining the old bombers seriously came up was in 2015. That never really went anywhere.
The engines that GE is proposing are the CF34-10 and the Passport series, both of which have extensive commercial applications that GE claims are a testament to their reliability and ease of maintenance. Sharing components with commercial equipment has been a goal of American military procurement in recent years, sometimes complicating maintenance more than it simplifies. That said, when it comes to something as complex as a jet engine, perhaps a little parts commonality isn’t the worst thing in the world.
You wouldn’t be mistaken for wondering why the Air Force is looking to keep a strategic bomber built to destroy with atomic force cities and military installations in an adversary that no longer exists, but while the Cold War as we once knew it is over, the Air Force has managed to drastically reformulate the B-52's mission over the course of its lifespan.
Strategic Air Command patrols with thermonuclear weapons on board ready for the directive to obliterate some corner of the Soviet Union were replaced by carpet-bombing runs over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the ‘60s and ‘70s and eventually the plane would become a high-tech platform supporting all kinds of warfare, from its original strategic bombing role to maritime patrol to operating as a launcher for stand-off weapons from far beyond the horizon. These roles can’t easily be filled by the incoming B-21 Raider stealth bomber and that’s why the Air Force is looking to keep these planes around as long as they can.
While a platform lifespan close to 150 years seems insane for an aircraft, there is some precedent for keeping military equipment of some types around for incredibly long periods of time. Usually, they’re ships, though, like the USS Blue Ridge, an amphibious command ship launched in 1969 and still in service today. The Russian navy even has a commissioned submarine salvage ship, the Kommuna, which saw service in the Tsar’s navy and the Soviet Navy since it was first launched in 1915.
But the lifespans of those ships will pale in comparison with the near-150-year service life of B-52s proposed by GE as part of this plan. While we know the planes are resilient enough to come back into service after a serious cockpit fire, we don’t know how they’ll contend with changing tactical considerations, environmental changes, and even just plain old metal fatigue as they continue to age.
One thing is sure, though. We already know that generations of institutional knowledge have continued to make the B-52 a formidable component of America’s air defense strategy for decades. If we double the length of the plane’s career, we’ll see another six or more generations of airmen and women flying B-52s, adding to the already thick mythos surrounding the eight-engined monster of a plane.