The U.S. Air Force is conducting a number of modernization initiatives to keep its fleet of 76 Boeing [BA] B-52H bombers flying to 2040 and beyond, including the Commercial Engine Replacement Program (CERP), a radar modernization program (RMP), and communications upgrades. In addition, the Air Force envisions new strike capabilities for the Buff, including the carriage of hypersonic missiles and the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile.

“Despite being our oldest bomber by a significant margin, it [the B-52] has the most life remaining among the B-1, B-2 and B-52,” Air Force Maj. Gen Mark Weatherington, the commander of Eighth Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center, said during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation virtual forum on Aug. 31. “However, continuing to effectively compete against modern adversaries will require some improvements.”

“Probably the most critical is the CERP,” he said. “Engine reliability and parts availability pose the most significant sustainment challenge to the fleet today. We know this program will deliver significant cost savings with reduced maintenance and will also reduce the number of tankers that we require when we employ. We anticipate about 30 percent fuel savings through this program and increased reliability to equate to much less maintenance downtime.”

In May, the Air Force released its final request for proposals for CERP, as the service looks to award a contract in the second half of next year (Defense Daily, May 20). The winning engine developer will build 608 new commercial engines, plus provide additional spare engines and other support equipment and data over a 17-year performance period. That includes one six-year basic period, one five-year option period and six one-year options, currently slated for fiscal year 2021 through FY 2035.

Pratt & Whitney [RTX], Rolls-Royce and GE Aviation [GE] are vying for the contract expected in the second half of next year. Pratt & Whitney is pitching its PW815 engine to replace the current P&W-made TF33-PW-103s on board the aircraft.

The winner will deliver 16-64 engines initially for integration onto prototype aircraft.

The Air Force requested $299.4 million in research and development funds for CERP in fiscal year 2021 and nearly $1.3 billion for the program across the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP). The Air Force has spent about $235 million over the past two fiscal years on the CERP, and expects to spend $7 billion to $8 billion over the program’s lifetime, officials have said.

Boeing is the sole-source integrator for a wide array of B-52 modernization efforts, including internal weapons bay upgrades, communications network/electronics upgrades, and a new radar.

The weapons bay upgrades, now on 25 B-52s, are to provide a 67 percent increase in smart weapons capacity–“akin to adding 20 more aircraft to the fleet,” Weatherington said.

Last year, the Air Force picked Raytheon [RTX] to design and build an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, based on AESA technologies in Raytheon’s APG-79/APG-82 family, to replace the B-52’s APQ-166 terrain-following and mapping radars by Northrop Grumman [NOC] (Defense Daily, July 11, 2019).

RMP is “essential to replace the now unsupportable radar and dramatically improve performance and supportability,” Weatherington said. “We anticipate about $377 million in savings on sustainment costs alone compared to the legacy system.”

Communications upgrades are also in the works, including the start of work on a low frequency/very low frequency radio replacement for the B-52 nuclear mission and the Boeing Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) upgrade–now on 70 of the bombers. Begun in 2014, CONECT replaces legacy cockpit displays and communications with such features as a moving map display in the cockpit and new displays at all crew stations, Link 16, and machine-to-machine beyond-line-of-sight tasking/retargeting.

“Overall for an old workhorse, it’s getting the upgrades it needs to be effective into the 2040s and into 2050,” Weatherington said of the B-52.