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War Birds

The flying workhorses of the U.S. military

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Richard Aboulafia is senior analyst and director of aviation consulting at Teal Group, an aircraft industry analysis company. He manages consulting projects for clients in the commercial and military aircraft field, and has advised numerous companies, including EADS, Boeing, Honeywell, General Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin. Besides writing public articles about the aviation field in such magazines as Aviation Week and Jane's Intelligence Review, Aboulafia also writes and edits Teal's World Military and Civil Aircraft Briefing, a forecasting tool covering more than 130 aircraft programs and markets. CNN interviewed him at Teal Group's offices in Fairfax, Virginia.

On the history of the B-52

The B-52 was developed after the B-47 program. Basically it's a larger-growth version with a lot of new and improved features of the B-47, which was one of our first major strategic jet bombers. Exactly 50 years ago on April 15, the YB-52 made its first flight. It has remained relevant partly because airframe technology has plateaued. That is to say, we know the optimal shape for a basic bomb truck and it still looks like that. A lot of systems have improved since then, and a lot of weapons have improved, but the actual carriage of weapons has pretty much remained constant. The real change is that if you actually want to penetrate enemy airspace you have to take an entirely different approach, a faster, stealthier approach like the B-1 or B-2 (bombers). But these days very often we find ourselves operating over non-contested airspace like Afghanistan. In which case, it doesn't really matter what you use, just so long as it carries lots of munitions and has a long-range capability. So the B-52 is still quite relevant for today's strategic environment.

On the innovations of the B-52 design

The B-47 and B-52 both took advantage of new innovations as well as rehorned innovations that the Germans had come up with during the war involving swept wing: the technology which allowed you to move faster through the subsonic regime without feeling a shock that would create buffeting.

German research validated the idea that a swept wing would delay the onset of shock. That is to say, you could keep getting closer and closer to the sonic boundary between Mach one and sub-Mach speeds without incurring shocks that would greatly increase fuel consumption and increase instability.

One of the biggest innovations (of the B-52) was simply brute size and force. It was one of the first shear, large jet-powered aircraft that had eight engines and could go intercontinentally with a large bomb load. That in itself was a form of an innovation. There'd been an ever-accelerating quest for range in payload, even from the days before World War II. And jet technology allowed you to do that even faster and better than before.

On the changing role of the B-52

The B-52 was born to play the nuclear attack role. It was going to be the airborne leg of the nuclear triad: In the event of a nuclear war, it would supplement submarines and land-based missiles to retaliate against the enemy. Over the years, of course, it continued to do that mission and it was only in the aftermath of the Cold War that it began to switch to basically a bomb truck. And to this day it's maintained a strong conventional relevance carrying conventional munitions such as cruise missiles, the joint direct attack munition (JDAM) -- which is a GPS-guided dumb bomb, if you will -- the joint standoff weapon, and other weapons that have just been introduced and are purely conventional. These are not nuclear weapons.

Back in 1991, during the Gulf War, the B-52 really was a classic bomb truck dropping dozens of dumb bombs on top of Iraqi troop formations. It has evolved from there to be a much more sophisticated weapon. We can launch precision attacks from the B-52 on al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.

On using B-52s for close-air support bombing near friendly ground troops

Think of it as something in between traditional strategic air power and direct support frontline forces. You know there's a real problem when you bomb from a B-52's altitude because there could still be errors which, of course, have resulted in several well-publicized incidents of friendly fire. But for the most part it's extremely useful to be able to hit enemy ground formations with that kind of weapons capacity. It's virtually unlimited.

On the development of and need for in-flight refueling

The B-52 took advantage of jet engine technology that was just reaching maturity at that time. All of the models of the B-52 until the last model, the H model, were powered by pure turbo jets. These drink massive amounts of fuel. And even when you just take off you use so much fuel getting that huge payload airborne, that it pays to tank up again just as soon as you've reached cruising altitude. The H model introduced the TF-33, a bypass turbo fan. Which had slightly better fuel consumption.

Obviously range and payload are closely linked. You can get a B-52 to operate autonomously without tankers, but you just can't carry very much inside. To operate with a full payload, you need tanking support, which is why the Air Force has over 500 large jet-powered tanker aircraft ready to assist the bomber fleet.

As you might imagine the space occupied by weaponry is relatively small. The overwhelming bulk of this plane is basically a one huge tanker. Its wings are just massive fuel tanks. Much of the fuselage is fuel.

On the B-52's longevity

This (the B-52) is, effectively, like that ancient fish that was found in the Indian Ocean. This is like a coelacanth. It's just amazing that it's going to be relevant, 60, 70 years beyond creation. To put this in relative time terms, this is as if the Sopwith Camel (biplane) from World War I was still fighting in Vietnam. It's remarkable that a plane should be so forward looking as to still be relevant for the next 20, 30 years even.

One of the biggest issues over the past decade for the B-52 program has been whether or not to re-engine. It's an excellent idea: give it additional power and allow it to consume a lot less fuel. That means of course an increase in the range payload envelope. That would involve large upfront costs -- something on the order of $20, $30 million at least per plane to re-engine them -- and yet you'd only be able to book the cost savings in terms of fuel over a longer period of time, say the next 20 or 30 years. And because of the Department of Defense's accounting rules, that might be difficult to see the upfront benefits. But still, there's a very good chance that one day it will be re-engined because if the airframe is a bit of a historical curiosity, the engines really do belong in museums.

On maintaining the B-52

Of course one of the virtues of the B-52 is they built over 700, of which fewer than 100 are still active. That means you've got a very large pool from which you can draw spares from. Now, the problem is that all of the active ones are B-52 H models, the last model built. That means they're going to have well relatively little in common with the earlier A through G models.

On the creation of the F-14 Tomcat

The Navy was very worried about very long-range threats to its carrier task forces, particularly bombers firing standoff weapons. And they wanted an aircraft that was capable of intercepting any threat and destroying it, many miles before any it got near the carrier task group. As a result, the F-14 was designed.

The F-14 would go out on a CAP mission -- a combat air patrol mission -- and basically survey the skies over a carrier task force. And it would typically go at an extended rate so it could perform missions at a fairly large radius around that fleet, aided by tankers of course. And then be capable of launching missiles and destroy targets another 100 miles or more away from those carrier task forces. As time went on, of course, it became extremely adaptable in doing just even basic dog-fighting missions, a mission that was popularized by the movie "Top Gun." It was an extremely maneuverable fighter, not just a long-range interceptor. The swing wings allow it to adapt to any aerodynamic requirement whether you want -- fast, swept wing, supersonic flight, or slow maneuvering flight with the wings somewhat out. And of course you had two pilots that could handle a very wide variety of threats. You'd have excellent oversight of the weapons system courtesy of the weapons officer and the cockpit.

During the 1960s, swept wings were very much in vogue to adapt the aircraft shape to this specific mission. Unfortunately, for technological reasons primarily -- the advent of computers -- this is sort of a fashion equivalent of bell-bottom pants in the aerodynamic world. It was great at the time, though. It was a real innovation. You could get planes to perform a very wide variety of missions and do them optimally. The problem, of course, is that your weight increased greatly because of this capability to maneuver wings in any position you wanted.

On later adaptations to the Tomcat

As time wore on and the Cold War began to wind down, the threat of vast numbers of fighters and bombers heading over towards the fleet in Europe kind of receded. And the more typical threat profile became, well what if we need to attack Libya again, or something like that. At that point, we began upgrading the F-14's with a bombing capability in a variety of programs such as "Bomb cat" instead of "Tomcat" or the quick-strike program gave it a basic precision-guided munitions capability.

The problem is that it's very difficult to make an airframe do something it wasn't originally designed to do.

(In the late 1980's) there were great plans to recapitalize the entire F-14 fleet with the D model, which is based around the General Electric F-110 engine and a variety of new sensors. This would have been a very potent weapon. But during the Cold War draw-down, the Navy decided to concentrate its resources on one or two types of planes. And the problem began with the F-14 was that it was a single-mission plane. You could make it do great things as a strike plane, but it was really an interceptor. So they wanted to move on to other, more multi-role planes such as the Hornet, FA-18. As a result, in the fiscal year 1990 budget they gave the Navy and Grumman the contractor one last batch of F-14 D's, provided that the production line be destroyed immediately afterwards. And within two years, the last F-14 was delivered and the production line was destroyed. Interestingly, this is the only example of a Cold War-era fighter whose production line was destroyed in the aftermath of the Cold War. All the others -- the F-15, the F-16 the F/A-18 -- all these production lines survived today and are quite active.

On the Super Hornet F/A-18E/F

The Super Hornet, the Hornet E/F, is an extremely cost-effective aircraft. That is to say, it does everything fairly well. That, of course, means that it's less capable of doing specific missions than the aircraft it replaces. It is not as good an interceptor as the F-14. It's not as good an attack plane as the A-6. But, nevertheless, it's a very good, all around, multi-role plane. And because it's the latest and greatest in modern architecture and design, you can upgrade it far more readily than you could say the F-14 or the A-6. So it's going to have an electronically scanned radar in a couple of years that will give it a great new capability. And of course as a more modern aircraft it's a lot more maintainable and less expensive to operate than the current legacy aircraft.

On legacy aircraft

The reliance of the US military legacy programs -- programs that frequently need to be rebuilt or rejuvenated or recapitalized in some way -- shows the importance for aerospace companies to keep their aftermarket in house. To make sure that they're part of the long-term revenue stream for any of their particular products.

Increasingly aircraft worldwide are going to be legacy systems because we can afford so many fewer of new aircraft. And yet we're keeping our force structures intact. Thanks to Congress, we still have many of the bases we had in the cold war, we still have many of the units. And, therefore, we have to rely on aircraft that are going to be older and older as time passes and had greater maintenance costs associated with them.

It means that the amount of money budgeted for reproduction or support of the existing forces is going to have to go up by the military and by Congress. And that's going to be difficult because very often these programs are not wanted, they're simply tolerated as necessary evils because you can't afford a replacement. And it might become very difficult to fight for cash for these programs.

Everyone loves the new product. No one considers the importance of caring and feeding for the older system.

I think these programs, to a very great extent, illustrate the plateauing in aircraft technology. Back in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, aircraft (design) really was high science. They were making great advances. And now we've kind of reached a plateau. And I think the survival of these systems illustrates that paradigm.

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