The “immortal” B-52

Even as technology cycles speed up for smartphones and other devices, there is one remarkable plane that is still flying and might continue to fly for decades more: the B-52.

Don’t be surprised if another generation of the family is in the cockpit before it goes into retirement. The Air Force plans improvements that will keep the plane around till 2040.It’s not quite your grandfather’s B-52. True, its onboard computers are pitifully underpowered antiques and some models still have vacuum tubes — Google that, kids. Barry Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, informs me that “there are dials in the B-52 cockpit that have not been connected to anything for years.”

But the plane has been repeatedly remodeled and upgraded to assure its utility, with new engines and electronics. Soon it will be “getting modern digital display screens, computer network servers and real-time communication uplinks,” according to the Times…

One of its virtues is relatively low cost, which presumably makes the Pentagon more willing to use it. The high price tags on the B-1 and the B-2 Stealth bomber mean the Air Force can’t buy as many of them and has to exercise more caution about putting them in harm’s way.

Another factor is that while more advanced aircraft possess capabilities that are rarely needed, the B-52 is perfectly adequate for most real-world contingencies. MIT defense scholar Owen Cote told me that since the 1990s, “we’ve been essentially continuously at war against smaller powers with weak or nonexistent air defenses, against whom the range, persistence and versatile payloads of the B-52 can be invaluable.”

I saw this story while recently thinking about the amazing aspects of modern car engines: they can be turned on and off thousands of times a year and they generally are expected to last at least 100,000 miles. Car engines are remarkably consistent considering all of the moving parts and the internal combustion taking place. Take the consistency of cars and then apply them to these larger aircraft and the idea that they can last for decades or even a century is remarkable.

Additionally, the end of the column hints that these old aircraft are perfectly fine in most modern situations – not all, but many. I know there is a whole history of bombers not being as flashy as fighter  and we would prefer to be prepared for all circumstances but it does lead me to wonder about claims that we need always need to be creating the best fighter-jets possible…is this a physical manifestation of American exceptionalism?

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