More than 50 years after they first entered service, the B-52 bombers used by the United States military are finally undergoing a much needed upgrade.
Although the aircraft have been used off and on by the Pentagon since practically the start of the Cold War, its insides have rarely been touched. All that has now changed, however, after the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing, announced that the first of dozens of bombers has been retrofitted through the new Combat Network Communications Technology, or CONECT, program.
In December, the White House approved a spending request intended to allocate around $296 million towards retrofitting 30 of the bombers during the next few years. The Air Force is hoping to receive additional funds for making the CONECT modifications to further bombers, Defense Industry Daily reported, but in the meantime the outlet says the first B-52 to be upgraded with the CONECT system has formally returned to the US Air Force fleet.
Maj. Gen. Scott A. Vander Hamm, the 8th Air Force commander, told the Pentagon earlier this month that upgrading the aircraft would be “a major leap forward” for what those particular models — the B-52H, or Stratofortress — bring to the military.
Although the bombers have been used since the 1960s, upgrading them to the CONECT system for the first time provides pilots with comparably modern technology that replaces antiquated instruments and communication devices with much newer ones.
Sean Gallagher, a journalist for Ars Technica, wrote this week that “CONECT is the first major information technology overhaul for the Air Force’s B-52H fleet since the airplanes started entering service in 1961.”
"Over the past two decades we've seen rapid advancements in technology, and that has really changed way we operate on the battlefield, especially in the information environment," Vander Hamm told Pentagon reporters. "What hasn't changed is the need to advance our capabilities and integrate those technologies with information to provide our aircrew with the most up-to-date information and the ability to act on it."
“CONECT helps the B-52 remain a viable, flexible weapon system supporting the needs of COCOMs [combatant commands] and our nation as we react to a rapidly changing world,” Michael Schenck, B-52 CONECT program manager for the Air Force, added to journalists at Wired.
All told, the CONECT upgrades will put new software, radios and computer servers on board a fleet of Stratofortress bombers, and old control panels and instruments that only worked manually until now will be replaced with digital, more modern equipment.
Modern, however, might not be the right word: although only one Stratofortress has been retrofitted so far, critics say the CONECT system contains technology that seemed cutting edge in the twentieth-century, but not the twenty-first: among the new tech being installed in the bombers are computers that will now use QWERT keyboards and let personnel navigate through screens using trackballs. Additionally, the analog phone system onboard the Stratofortress will be replaced with a digital one, and crew members will no longer be required to input logistics and targets by hand.
"Now when we add additional systems to the aircraft at some future date, we will be going from a digital component, across our new digital backbone, to another digital component elsewhere in the aircraft," said Alan Williams, the deputy program element monitor at Air Force Global Strike Command. "In the future, it will make upgrades easier to do because we'll already have the digital infrastructure in the aircraft."
Next time, though maybe the Pentagon won’t wait half-a-century to give crewmembers color monitors: according to reports, the CONECT system will for the first time replace monochrome screens within the B-52s with multi-color ones.
“As you can imagine, stepping into a B-52H is a bit like going back in time, to an era when monochrome cathode ray tubes and relay-based computers were cutting edge,” Sebastian Anthony wrote for Extreme Tech this week. According to the 2014 fiscal year budget, that cutting edge world of color TV and modern computing will be coming onboard 30 B-52H bombers during the next four years.