It will soon be the end of the line for the United States Air Force’s B-52H Stratofortress, but not because the Cold War-era bomber is being retired. No, the B-52 will still remain the workhorse of the Air Force for a least another 20 to 25 years.
Rather, as the current bombers are receiving new Rolls Royce F130 engines, swapping out the Pratt & Whitney TF-33 engines, the current fleet of B-52Hs will become B-52Js.
“Any B-52H aircraft modified with the new commercial engines and associated subsystems are designated as B-52J,” the Air Force said in justification documents for its 2024 budget request, per Air & Space Forces magazine back in April.
Some of the current fleet of bombers, which first entered service with the U.S. military in the early 1950s, have already received the installation of Raytheon’s AESA AN/APG-79 radar, in addition to new navigation and communication systems. As a result, there was speculation the engine upgrade would call for the B-52K designation, but the Air Force is sticking with the J designation – at least for now.
B-52: A Long Flying Bomber
The United States Air Force is now on track to migrate toward a two-bomber fleet that will consist of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, which was officially unveiled at a ceremony in December and the B-52. The B-21 will gradually replace the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers that are now in service.
The B-52 was the first U.S. long-range, swept-wing heavy bomber. It originally entered service as an intercontinental, high-altitude bomber, but its operational capabilities have been adapted over the past seven decades to meet changing defense needs. This included modifications for low-level flight, conventional bombing, and extended-range flights. The current fleet of B-52s can launch ballistic and cruise missiles hundreds of miles from their targets, and there have been efforts to develop hypersonic weapons that can be employed with the bombers.
However, last month, the Air Force announced it would close out the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) after a couple more tests. Instead, the service will shift its focus to the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM), which will be employed from the F-15 Eagle fighter.
The B-52 Fleet – Backbone of the Air Force
A total of 744 B-52s were produced in Seattle, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas, between 1952 and 1962.
Currently, 76 of the aircraft are in the United States Air Force’s inventory. Of those 58 are active with the 2nd Bomb Wing and 5th Bomb Wing, while 18 more are in reserve with the 307th Bomb Wing. Another dozen are in long-term storage at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB) “Boneyard.”
The Air Force expected the B-52Js with new engines and radars to be ready for service by the end of the decade. The legendary B-52 could reach 100 years in service by the time the platform is finally retired.
Author Experience and Expertise:
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.