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New B-52H’s AESA Radar could reduce BUFF’s crew size from five to four

“If we are going to put all these upgrades in the airplane, it does make sense that [crew size] would eventually come down,” Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Gebara, director of strategic plans, programs, and requirements for AFGSC.

A new AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar from Raytheon will be installed on the B-52H strategic bomber to replace the BUFF’s ancient AN/APQ-166 radar. Its analog/mechanical systems is prone to all the shortcomings of older technology, said Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Gebara, director of strategic plans, programs, and requirements for AFGSC (Air Force Global Strike Command) in a September Air Force Magazine interview. He said the system was old when he first joined the Air Force nearly three decades ago. 

“When I started flying the B-52, it was a 20-plus-year-old radar back then,” Gebara pointed out. “It’s a maintenance nightmare for those poor guys on the line.”

The replacement radar, which had been selected in July 2019 and it is based on Raytheon’s APG-79/APG-82 family of systems used in the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet with elements drawn from the F-15E Strike Eagle, still has no official designator. “We wanted an off-the shelf” solution that would be “most useful to us for the least amount of cost,” Gebara said. Boeing, as the integrator, chose the radar.

The AESA radar will include improved mapping and targeting range and increased capacity to engage multiple targets simultaneously and will go into low-rate initial production in 2024. The solid-state radar will have no moving parts—easing maintenance. 

“We’ll be operations-capable” with the new radar in 2026, Gebara explained.

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The radar is what could enable AFGSC to reduce B-52 crews from five to four Airmen. While no firm decisions have been made, Gebara said, “If we are going to put all these upgrades in the airplane, it does make sense that [crew size] would eventually come down.” He added, however, that nothing is “imminent.”

The idea that floated in the early 2000s to use the B-52 as theater-wide, standoff jamming platform justified the aircraft re-engine program: new engines would generate the needed electrical power for jamming emitters to blanket a wide area. That remains an option, but Gebara said there are no near-term plans to turn the bombers into jammers.

“It’s not an imminent program,” he said. “The plane will be around to 2050, and one thing that’s exciting about the B-52 is, you never know what’s going to come next.” But, he said, “that’s not something you’ll see in the next few years.”

Last April the USAF published a draft RFP (request for proposal) for the B-52H re-engine program. A total of 608 engines plus additional spare engines and support equipment are required. They are to be delivered over 17 years.

These new engines will allow the service to keep the iconic BUFF operational until at least 2050.

The USAF’s B-52Hs’ engines are the Pratt & Whitney TF33-PW-103s which have powered the aircraft since the early 1960s. The TF33 is based on the commercial JT3D that powered the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. Each Stratofortress has eight engines.

GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce have expressed interest in bidding on the program.

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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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