There is that experiment known as the “Theseus’ paradox” or “The Ship of Theseus,” and it questions whether if an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. At this point that could be asked of the Cold War-era Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, which has undergone more facelifts and enhancements than some celebrities.
With many of the aircraft already far older than the crews flying them, the B-52s lifespan has been extended to the middle of this century through numerous upgrades. Just this month it was announced that L3Harris, a defense contractor that produces tactical radios and information technology, was awarded a contract to modernize the B-52 fleet by enhancing the aircrafts’ AN/ALQ-172 electronic warfare (EW) self-protection system, providing a combat-proven integrated radiofrequency system that can simultaneously counter multiple electronic spectrum threats that interfere with aircraft operations. This will help protect the bombers from enemy radar threats.
The company was awarded a 10-year, sole-source $947 million IDIQ contract, and L3Harris also has the opportunity to expand the scope of the work on the program from software sustainment to hardware upgrades.
The company has already provided electronic warfare technology to the B-52 for more than 50 years, and L3Harris has further leveraged the electromagnetic spectrum for tactical advantage, understanding threats and protecting against them for 60 years. The IDIQ will extend the B-52’s EW relevance and reliability through the end of its lifespan.
“Competition for the electromagnetic spectrum is fierce and without spectrum dominance, our armed forces lose competitive advantage,” said Ed Zoiss, president of L3Harris Space and Airborne Systems. “It’s critical to continue upgrading our platforms to maintain spectrum superiority.”
The announcement of the new EW upgrade follows the news that the Department of the Air Force had awarded a $2.6 billion contract to Rolls-Royce Corporation, Indianapolis, Indiana, for B-52H Stratofortress military derivative commercial engines. The competitive single award contract was for 608 military derivative commercial engines, plus spare engines, associated support equipment and commercial engineering data, to include sustainment activities, to be used on the B-52H bomber fleet.
The Rolls-Royce F130 engine will replace the currently used TF33-PW-103, which has powered the B-52 since the 1960s. The upgrade has been deemed necessary as the current engines will no longer be supportable beyond 2030.
Boeing, which is the original manufacturer of the bomber, will be responsible for integrating the engines into the aircraft. The Air Force announced that it plans to finalize integration activities and deliver the first lot of the B-52H modified aircraft by the end of 2028.
“The B-52 CERP is a complex upgrade that not only updates the aircraft with new engines but updates the flight deck area, struts and nacelles,” said Brig. Gen. John Newberry, Air Force bombers program executive officer.
“Our current virtual digital prototyping efforts are giving us an opportunity to integrate the engines and other changes to the B-52 before doing any physical modifications,” added Gen. Newberry. “This has allowed us to develop the most cost-efficient solution while reducing the time from concept to production.”
The new engines on the B-52s are expected to remain on the B-52H through at least 2050. In addition to being supportable and serviceable, the new engines will reportedly increase fuel efficiency, increase range, reduce emissions in unburned hydrocarbons, and significantly reduce maintenance costs.
“The B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program is the most important and comprehensive upgrade to the B-52 in over half a century,” added Maj. Gen. Jason Armagost, director of Strategic Plans, Programs and Requirements at Headquarters Air Force Global Strike Command, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. “The B-52 is the workhorse of the nation’s bomber force and this modification will allow the B-52 to continue its critical conventional and standoff mission into 2050s.”
According to the Air Force, the first two fully modified B-52s are projected to be delivered by the end of 2025 and will undergo ground and flight testing. The first lot of operational B-52s with the new engines is projected to deliver by the end of 2028 with the entire fleet modified by 2035.
With these upgrades, the last B-52s could remain in the service for 100 years. The question is whether any of the parts on those aircraft would actually date back to the 1950s.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.