What Raytheon Technologies can do for the B-52 modernization

On a spring afternoon in the late 1980s, U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Jeffrey Kindley was eating lunch at the Air Museum at Castle Air Force Base when a man noticed his uniform and asked about his job. Kindley said he was training to pilot the B-52, which at the time had seen almost 35 years of service.

“No kidding,” the man said. “My grandfather flew that plane.”

 

Some 35 years later, the B-52 is approaching 70 years of service – and the Air Force is investing in a modernization effort that will keep it relevant until 2050. That would add up to a century’s worth of missions for the B-52 – a plane whose first pilots are now in their 80s and 90s and whose last pilots are yet to be born.

 

“I think that says a lot for our country and the industrial base, that we could build something that well. It’s versatile, durable and affordable, and its performance has been outstanding for decades. It’s performed in almost every conflict since its creation,” said Kindley, now director of Strategic Air Effects at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business.

 

To keep the B-52 dominant, the Air Force plans to invest in technologies including a new engine system, aerostructures and precision weaponry. Here is how Raytheon Technologies can deliver on all those fronts.

Powering the fleet

Close up of a PW800 engine
Pratt & Whitney, a Raytheon Technologies business, had proposed the PW800 for the U.S. Air Force’s Commercial Engine Replacement Program for the B-52.

At the forefront of the modernization for the B-52 is a planned re-engining. The current engine, the TF33, was retrofitted to the aircraft in the '60s. Before that, the J57 powered the bomber. The common thread: Both were Pratt & Whitney engines.

Pratt & Whitney, a business of Raytheon Technologies, had proposed its PW800 engine to power the B-52 for decades to come through the Air Force’s Commercial Engine Replacement Program, or CERP.

“We were disappointed to learn that the U.S. Air Force did not select our offering, the industry-leading PW800,” the business said in a statement. “We believe that we offered the lowest-risk engine and overall best value to the USAF for the CERP competition which will improve the reliability, mission readiness, and fuel efficiency of its B-52 Stratofortress fleet.”

The statement said Pratt & Whitney “remains fully committed to powering and sustaining the existing fleet of bombers with its TF33 engines for years to come.”

Producing new aerostructures that meet cost and quality requirements

Close up of the PW800 engine
Under the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program (CERP), Collins Aerospace will provide nacelles and struts that are more efficient, optimize air flow and yield greater value to the Air Force.

Of course, with a new engine comes a new nacelle – the external housing that contains the engine, fuel and other equipment. Boeing has designed the B-52’s new nacelle but has yet to award the production contract. The Air Force is also in the market for a new strut, the component that holds the engine to the wing.

Collins Aerospace, a Raytheon Technologies business, is among the top contenders to produce both.

"We understand nacelles and how to efficiently and accurately manufacture them to the Boeing and Air Force standards and schedules,” said Marc Duvall, president of Aerostructures at Collins Aerospace. “And beyond manufacturing, Collins has the service and repair network to keep these components flying as the B-52 mission extends toward its centennial celebration.”

The company has 80 years of experience producing nacelles and struts and has worked on all eight variants of the B-52. In that time, Collins has produced approximately 6,000 twin-pod nacelles and 3,000 struts. But the company’s experience goes beyond that, having worked on engine mounts and systems, fuselages and underwing fuel pods. Collins also provides nacelles on three of the four engines that are being considered for the B-52 update.

Just like with the re-engining, there’s more to winning the contract than work history alone. Performance and cost are also critical, and Collins is making a case that it can deliver value, the lowest manufacturing risk, the highest performance and the experience of a longtime partner.

The business points to its production timelines on aerostructures, the components on an aircraft’s frame, for the Boeing 737 and 787. With the 737NG, Collins saw a 100% on-time-delivery rate and a 99% rate for the 787. As for quality, Collins has seen an average score of 99.96% for the last 12 months. These processes, facilities and teams used for the 737 and 787 are the same ones that will be used for the B-52’s nacelles and struts.

All of this leads to cost efficiency, quality and consistent production.

The new precision weaponry that will make the B-52 a long-range nuclear option

Pilots sitting in the lower deck of the B-52
Aircrew members are ready in the lower deck of a B-52 Stratofortress at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.

The B-52 is a bomber, after all, so any effort to modernize it means new weaponry.

In April of 2020, the Air Force announced it would move ahead with Raytheon Missiles & Defense’s design for a new Long Range Stand Off Weapon, which will be capable of delivering both tactical and nuclear strikes at distances outside of enemy land and sea defenses. The Air Force plans to procure enough missiles to replace the existing Air Launched Cruise Missile inventory for the B-52 and future bomber and will begin fielding them within the decade.

Developing a nuclear missile that can be stored for 30 years and still deliver a precision strike requires a high degree of engineering skill.

“There’s a tremendous amount of testing to make sure the unit is reliable over time,” said Kindley. “Normally, when we deliver a tactical missile to the Air Force, it won’t be in service for 30 years. It’ll be used before that. The nuclear LRSO has to be reliable for 30 years. There’s zero room for error.”

One of the ways Kindley and his team helped ensure the missile’s dependability was by making it easier to perform its scheduled maintenance. To do that, Raytheon Missiles & Defense sent a team to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota where some of the missiles are stored – and where temperatures can reach minus 60 in the winter.

The company focused on cold-weather maintenance – specifically, tasks airmen would complete while wearing gloves. As a result, the LRSO is engineered so that it takes less than 10 tools to do maintenance and repair. Panels and other sections have also been ergonomically designed for use with the limited dexterity of a gloved hand.

The weapon’s range also enables the B-52 to carry out strikes that normally would require a stealth aircraft.

“The B-52 is part of our modern Air Force. It has to remain current,” Kindley said. “Because of the LRSO, the B-52 can continue to fill the standoff role to be a lethal and credible threat in the future against advanced adversaries.”