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Why Can't We Replace the B52?

  1. Dec 8, 2015 #1

    anorlunda

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    The NY Times has a provocative article, After 60 Years B52s Still Dominate U.S. Fleet
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/us/b-52s-us-air-force-bombers.html?_r=1

    The article cites as prominent examples the B1 and B2 bombers which fail to be even as good as the B52.

    We are so proud of technology that we like to believe that there is almost no engineering challenge that we can't meet if only we set our minds and resources to it. Does the B52 story refute that?

    It is tempting to paint a romantic story invoking the genius of Kelly Johnson and the skunkworks, or Steve Jobs and the iPhone, and how evil government and corporate risk-aversion stifles genius. But a check back on the actual history 1946-1952. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_B-52_Stratofortress#Origins tells a very different story. We had government procurement, RFPs, and competitive contracts. We had interference and management imposed design changes galore. It sounds like the canonical recipe for engineering project failures; yet the result was and still is famously successful.

    So it does indeed seem likely that the B52 may live to be 100 years old without being bested by more modern technology. How can we explain that?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 8, 2015 #2
    Sometimes, it's as simple as the cost-benefit analysis.

    Sometimes a small amount better is many times more expensive.
     
  4. Dec 8, 2015 #3

    cjl

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    Because they haven't tried to replace the B52. The B1 and B2 are dramatically different concepts. If there were a new requisition for a non-stealthy, subsonic, high payload and range, robust bomber, we could absolutely do better than the B52 - compare the fuel efficiency, range, and payload of passenger airliners today vs the 1950s to get some idea of the magnitude of improvement available. We haven't tried such a direct replacement though. You could make a similar argument with the Boeing 707 vs the Concorde. Originally, many people thought that Concorde was the way of the future, but it never really replaced subsonic airliners like the 707. That doesn't mean the 707 couldn't be bested though, as proven by more modern aircraft such as the 777, 787, A330, A350, and many others.
     
  5. Dec 8, 2015 #4

    boneh3ad

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    At the end of the day, when the Cold War ended we stopped having an extreme need to replace the B-52. The chief disadvantage of the B-52 (aside from being a bit of a fuel guzzler) is that it is large and slow and could be intercepted by Soviet air defenses. We therefore developed the B-1 (supersonic, so harder to intercept) and the B-2 (stealth) to try and overcome this drawback. After the threat of mutual annihilation with the Soviets subsided, we just didn't really have a need to replace a workhorse that still functioned like the B-52.

    There's also the issue of the purpose of those bombers. One of the reasons for all the bomber development was to ensure that the air-dropped portion of the nuclear triad was still feasible. As time passed, however, our primary nuclear force has shifted away from bombs toward submarine-launched ballistic missiles. That also took away some of the impetus for developing newer heavy bombers.

    Now we just fly B-52s over airspace that we already control like Iraq or Afghanistan where they have no risk of being shot down and their extremely large payloads make them attractive options to put a lot of explosives on targets. Additionally, it's not like we haven't continually upgraded those planes over the years. I am sure they will be replaced sooner or later, but if it's not broke, don't fix it.

    EDIT: As an aside, I really wish people would stop holding Steve Jobs up as some paragon of American ingenuity. The guy hardly knew anything about the actual products he developed and was just the manager, basically. He was a real jerk, to boot.
     
  6. Dec 8, 2015 #5

    anorlunda

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    I agree with you. Perhaps I could have said "Steve Jobs the legend" as opposed to "Steve Jobs the man" But, it would be futile to try to expunge that legend from the American mind, so learn to live with it.

    I don't think we can say that attempts at replacement haven't been tried. Nor was it simplicity and clarity of requirements (read the Wikipedia history linked to see what a megabuck bureaucratic mess it was.)

    From the NYT Ariticle:
    The B-52 is an Air Force plane that refuses to die. Originally slated for retirement generations ago, it continues to be deployed in conflict after conflict. ... It has outlived its replacement. And its replacement’s replacement. And its replacement’s replacement’s replacement.

    A front-page story in The New York Times in 1966 said all B-52s would need to retire by 1975 because they would “be too old to continue beyond that point.” But no viable alternative emerged.

    “There have been a series of attempts to build a better intercontinental bomber, and they have consistently failed,” said Owen Coté, a professor of security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Turns out whenever we try to improve on the B-52, we run into problems, so we still have the B-52.”

    From the Wikipedia article:
    Even while the air force works on its Next-Generation Bomber and 2037 Bomber projects, it intends to keep the B-52H in service until 2045, nearly 90 years after the B-52 first entered service, an unprecedented length of service for any aircraft, civilian or military.

    The USAF continues to rely on the B-52 because it remains an effective and economical heavy bomber, particularly in the type of missions that have been conducted since the end of the Cold War against nations that have limited air defense capabilities. The B-52 has also continued in service because there has been no reliable replacement. The B-52 has the capacity to "loiter" for extended periods over (or even well outside) the battlefield, and deliver precision standoff and direct fire munitions. It has been a valuable asset in supporting ground operations during conflicts such as Operation Iraqi Freedom.[194] The B-52 had the highest mission capable rate of the three types of heavy bombers operated by the USAF in 2001. The B-1 averaged a 53.7% ready rate and the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit achieved 30.3%, while the B-52 averaged 80.5% during the 2000–2001 period.
     
  7. Dec 8, 2015 #6

    cjl

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    Sure, they've tried to build replacements, but none of those replacements have been simply a better B52. They add on requirements like stealth or supersonic flight that dramatically increase complexity and cost. Look at those "next generation bomber" and "2037 bomber" concepts for example - stealth is mentioned in both and supersonic flight in one of the two. If we wanted to build a new subsonic, non-stealthy, high endurance and range bomb truck, we could. It would be rather easy to eclipse the B-52 in capability, reliability, and efficiency. We haven't tried that though, in part because the B-52 is good enough for the time being.
     
  8. Dec 8, 2015 #7
    I guess they are not replaced because they are still adequate for their intended role.
    A more modern design with improved capability would be possible I'm sure, for one thing it would probably use more efficient turbofan engines.
    This would need a major R+D investment though, not to mention actual construction of the replacements, retraining of crew and so on.
    Very likely the reasoning is that this is just not a good investment while there is a proven and reliable design already in existence, and an improved design while possible wouldn't offer much of importance from a tactical point of view.
    I guess they must be phased out eventually though, you can't keep on patching up old airframes indefinitely, metal fatigue problems must eventually become an issue.
    I don't think new B52s are still being made
     
  9. Dec 8, 2015 #8

    SteamKing

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    Not being able to replace the B-52 is emblematic of a larger problem in defense procurement, from aircraft, to ships, to sidearms, etc. It takes too long to get anything done.

    Modern fighter aircraft are supposed to be relatively inexpensive and able to evolve rapidly to counter new developments in other fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft defenses, etc.

    The USAF F-15 and F-16 aircraft have pretty much run their course, as did the USN F-14 a while back. All three air frames need replacement, yet the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter just became operational several months ago after a flight testing program which lasted almost 9 years. The initial development contract was signed in 1996. With such extended development cycles for new aircraft, it's a wonder anything new gets delivered.

    By contrast, the essential elements of the B-52 were laid out by a team of Boeing engineers working with paper pads and slide rules in a hotel room in Dayton, Ohio over a long weekend, after Boeing's initial proposal had been rejected by the Air Force. At the end of their work, one of the engineers had time to get some balsa wood and make a crude model of the new design to show the Air Force when the engineers briefed them the following week.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_B-52_Stratofortress {See the Section called Design effort}

    That meeting between Boeing and the USAF occurred in October 1948. By April 1952, a prototype aircraft had been constructed and was ready to start flight tests. By February 1955, the B-52 had entered series production and was first deployed by the USAF. The design effort was handled mostly by slide rules and wind tunnel testing and making hand drawings on paper, cloth, or film. No computers or CAD of CFD technology to speak of.

    The longer a development cycle drags on, the more people want to fiddle with it and refine it. The engineers doing the work call these delays 'feature creep' and 'mission creep'. The former results when people want to add the latest and greatest technology to a design, while the latter occurs when different branches want the new aircraft to be capable of dealing with different kinds of targets and operations.

    All of these delays/redesigns/refinements, etc. just add to the cost of the finished product, assuming there ever is one. The projected cost of the new F-35 JSF is estimated to be over $100 million per aircraft, assuming the number to be produced isn't cut any further. The last B-52 which rolled off the line in 1962 went for less than $10 million per plane (about $80 million in current dollars). The B in B-52 should stand for 'Bargain'.
     
  10. Dec 8, 2015 #9

    boneh3ad

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    The problems with the F-35 are legion, but they start with the idea that it's even possible to build a plane that can assume basically every role for every armed service and do a good job at all of them. That's simply not feasible, it would seem (or at least not using the approach Lockheed did).
     
  11. Dec 8, 2015 #10

    SteamKing

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    At one time, Norm Augustine, former CEO of Martin Marietta Corp., is reported to have predicted that by a certain year in the 21st century, the entire defense budget of the United States would be devoted to purchasing just one aircraft, because of the growth in the cost of producing airplanes for the military.

    He has also been quoted saying, "Most projects start out slowly - and then sort of taper off ...", which accurately portrays the frantic pace of most military procurement programs today.

    Long Gone are the days of the Polaris missile, the USN's first ballistic missile capable of being launched from a submerged vessel. That program started in 1956 with the goal of not only of producing a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead 1500 miles after being launched from a sub, but also designing and building the sub to carry the missiles, and demonstrating operational capability within 5 years after the start of the program.
     
  12. Dec 8, 2015 #11

    anorlunda

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    I think that NASA's unmanned missions are outstanding examples of what we can accomplish with smart people and wilinness to take risks.

    Other than that, I think that risk adversity is the primary factor preventing use from B52-like successes. All those procurement rules, for example, were created to prevent some mistake from ever happening again. If you're not willing to accept possible failure at the start, your achievements will all be baby steps.
     
  13. Dec 8, 2015 #12

    SteamKing

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    The B-47 medium bomber was designed only a couple of years before the B-52. In many ways, the B-47 was a leading edge aircraft design for the times, and a very graceful looking plane compared to the truck-like B-52. The B-47 was produced in great numbers (more than 2000 were built by Boeing (including a handful assembled by Douglas and Lockheed using Boeing furnished parts), yet it was retired for the most part by the end of the 1960s.
    B-36%20B-52B%20B-47E%20front%20Eglin%20firepower%20demo%20m.jpg

    The B-47 is in the foreground; behind and to the right is a B-52; an obsolete B-36 is farthest back.

    Only a few years before the B-47 was introduced, Boeing was making bunches of B-17s and B-29s. After the B-47 appeared, you woulda thunk that space aliens had taken over Boeing and started building airplanes there. :eek:
     
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