The Air Force brings the B-52 into the digital age

B52 bomber CONECT

The B-52, here with its munitions on display, is getting a digital communications upgrade.

The Air Force is bringing the B-52 Stratofortress, still the primary aircraft for targeted bombing, into the 21st century, most recently awarding Boeing a $46.7 million contract for upgraded network communications systems under the Combat Network Communication Technology (CONECT) program.

The contract calls for seven full-rate production systems along with 21 retrofit kits for earlier versions of CONECT. The Air Force had given Boeing a $76 million contract in May 2013 for low-rate initial production of CONECT, and the service eventually plans to install the system on 76 bombers.

CONECT represents one of the most significant upgrades to the B-52 fleet, bringing the venerable bomber, the first versions of which date to the 1950s, into the digital age. The system adds color digital display screens, real-time satellite data links and integrated network and communications tools. It will allow crews, for the first time, to update mission plans during flight; currently, mission data is loaded before a flight but remains static after that.

As the Air Force noted when it announced plans for connect in 2013, situations change too quickly to go into a mission with data that’s 20 or 30 hours old. CONECT includes an IP-based beyond line of sight, or BLOS, communications ability along with an integrated suite of other tools that will allow an air operations center to pass along updated threat and targeting data, and enable fast machine-to-machine retargeting.

As an Air Force official noted when the program was announced, "It is taking the B-52 from a rotary-dial phone to a smartphone."

And giving the B-52 a digital foundation for its onboard systems it will make future upgrades easier to apply for the rest of its life cycle, which the Air Force expects to last beyond 2040.

In addition to the seven full-rate production systems, the contract calls for upgrading the 21 previously purchased low-rate production systems, bringing them up to full-rate configuration. Work under the contract is expected to be completed by May 30, 2017.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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