war on the rocks

We Already Have an Arsenal Plane: It’s Called the B-52

June 22, 2016

And the last project I want to highlight is one that we’re calling the arsenal plane, which takes one of our oldest aircraft platforms and turns it into a flying launchpad for all sorts of different conventional payloads. In practice, the arsenal plane will function as a very large airborne magazine, network to fifth generation aircraft that act as forward sensor and targeting nodes, essentially combining different systems already in our inventory to create wholly new capabilities.

– Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, February 2016

Despite obstacles presented by the modern acquisition process, the Department of Defense seems determined to find solutions to its ever-growing list of requirements. DARPA’s endless stream of creative programs teeter on the fine line between science fiction and reality. Defense journals and blogs alike are abuzz with recent projects executed or announced by the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), which is focused on technological applications for current military problems.   One program of note in the SCO portfolio favored by Secretary Carter is the “arsenal plane” concept, which recurs every now and then. In 1979, the Carter administration proposed a converted Boeing 747-200 as the Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft, loaded with 72 nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles. The concept briefings for the miniature air-launched decoy (MALD) are littered with images showing the MALD being dispensed from a C-130 or C-17. The concept of the “missile caddy,” which was intended to increase the number of air-to-air missiles available to a fighter, has been around at least since the 1990s. In February, the Air Force released an artist’s conception of an arsenal plane – an 8-engined aircraft resembling a cross between the B-52 and a C-5.  Like many a Pentagon program, this idea has the potential to run off the rails in short order unless it is made clear that the arsenal plane concept is not a new aircraft.  Not only is the idea not new, but, we already have an arsenal plane.  It’s called the Stratofortress.


The possibility of modifying commercial aircraft for military use — like the KC-46 or P-8 — seems attractive on the surface, but the difficulties of weaponizing a commercial aircraft that was never intended to fire weapons are nontrivial. Furthermore, the acquisition of a new major weapon system has no place at the table among the looming myriad needs of the Air Force and the Department of Defense. The F-35, B-21, KC-46, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program, and fleet-wide modernization of the legacy force demand too much of the available budget and attention from senior leaders. And the sister services fair no better. The list of needs marches along amid an ever-evolving operating environment and ever-smaller coffers: Ford-class aircraft carriers, the SSBN replacement, Zumwalt-class destroyers, Amphibious Combat Vehicles, Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, and more.

Fortunately, the Air Force already operates an arsenal platform crewed by aviators familiar with the missions of global precision attack and adept at managing numerous weapons in combat. The B-52 Stratofortress is America’s first-generation arsenal plane, and it can be our next-generation arsenal plane, too. The B-52 has successfully launched a laundry list of aircraft and spacecraft: the X-15 hypersonic test aircraft, all four NASA lifting bodies, the X-43A hypersonic scramjet, assorted target drones, and the Pegasus booster, which successfully delivered a satellite to orbit. NASA built the 25,000-lb. Aerospace Vehicle Pylon for the B-52H specifically to allow the B-52H to carry and launch rockets destined for space. The B-52 can also launch more traditional weapons such as cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, and the nuclear-tipped AGM-69 SRAM (a rocket boosted nuclear weapon), and now the first precision-guided bottom mines. Given this mix of capabilities, it is clear not only that the B-52 could be an arsenal plane, but that it already is in many ways. The decision is not so much how to build one, but how to modify the existing aircraft to make it better.

B-52B carrying the Pegasus booster aloft, 5 April 1990 (NASA)

Recently, we made an argument for an upgraded B-52J that explicitly recognized its utility as an arsenal plane. This upgrade proposal focused on recommending key component modernization so that the B-52 could assume the role of flying magazine. It also addressed the attractiveness of the B-52, largely because its airframe life is not in question for the next quarter century, even without structural modification. In execution, the arsenal plane might serve not only as a carrier for scores of weapons, but also as a battlefield network hub.

The B-52 is ideally suited for the role. Unlike the B-1 bomber, it is capable of carrying a large external payload. It has an unrefueled range that is unmatched. The aircraft’s combat ceiling exceeds 40,000 feet, allowing it to gain a position with long lines of sight and high potential energy for air-launched weapons that gives them greater range. Modified racks for carrying weapons and a dedicated modification program combined with the impressive adaptability of the B-52 raises the prospect of dramatic increases to the numbers and mix of munitions available. The aircraft has extensive real estate for communications antennas and large sensor arrays. Not only is the B-52 well-suited to carrying a large and diverse range of weapons, it is also well-suited to tap into the networks that many of these weapons are envisioned to rely upon.

Information flow and long-range communications represent key warfighting enablers. The thirst for information by air operations centers and the high demand for “gateway” assets such as the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) reinforce the argument. The unforgiving and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan requires these airborne relay stations, as would the tyrannical influence wrought by vast distances across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The WB-57 Canberra and (later) Bombardier Global Express aircraft operating as BACN platforms over Afghanistan used their high vantage point to provide enhanced connectivity for data link users and voice communications for both air and ground parties. Unfortunately, the Global Express is an example of a limited-use conversion:  business commuter aircraft equipped with fine leather seats and a full-service galley offer only limited resources to combatant commanders.

The B-52 is already undergoing modifications to its systems, but they fall short of a desperately needed full modernization. The Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) program inserts a digital nervous system to integrate a host of current and future technologies. Touting  modern secure radios and beyond line-of-sight data links, the B-52 already possesses the foundation necessary for the role of network node. Additional improvements currently underway include line-of-sight Link 16 and radar modernization. With redundant communications paths, the Arsenal B-52 offers unprecedented data-sharing ability. An Arsenal B-52 could provide tactical assets access to emerging information from beyond line-of-sight in real-time. Simultaneously, the rapidly evolving tactical picture reaches the air operations center without impeding the operators and enabling commanders to accelerate their operational decision cycles. Multiple strike packages operating across expansive areas must currently operate on contracts, code words, or through sequential phasing. Arsenal B-52s operating with each package could enable multiple mission commanders to coordinate attacks as their situations evolve.

Avionics modernization also creates potential for significant changes to B-52 employment inside the cockpit. As an aircraft designed in the 1960s and upgraded in the 1980s with the best technology the 1970s could create, the B-52 required a crew of five (the sixth seat, the gunner position was nixed in the 1990s) to operate. Each individual performed tasks so demanding that the crew evolved as five specialists working loosely together. The electronic warfare officer jammed using manually tuned equipment. The navigator tracked aircraft position using paper charts, celestial navigation methods, and dead reckoning. The radar navigator coddled temperamental inertial navigation units in collaboration with the navigator. The co-pilot acted as flight engineer and radio operator. The aircraft commander attempted to wrangle this group toward the target area and back.

Cross-cockpit information sharing via modern means enables more efficient and effective employment. The technology revolution occurring on the B-52 so substantially alters the workload of the bomber crew that the potential exists for the elimination of the fifth crew member. Crews now accomplish tasks previously relegated to specific individuals because of either their workload or rudimentary mechanization via integrated smart displays. With a technology-enabled four-person crew, the Arsenal B-52 enters the fight with the means of managing the mountain of information passing through the jet and the scores of weapons ready for release. Notably, the B-1’s four-person crew has been operating effectively for three decades.

If threat levels preclude the effective utilization use of vulnerable high- value airborne assets (HVAA) battle managers such as the E-3 AWACS and E-8 JSTARS,, and their crews of airborne battle managers, then the Arsenal B-52 could provide an alternative solution.  A four-person crew leaves two open ejection seats in the aircraft. Using the model of the B-1, which has an offensive systems officer and a defensive systems officer, those two positions could move to the basement, leaving the former defensive compartment vacant. Dispatching one or two air battle manager(s) to an optionally manned battle management station on the Arsenal B-52 could enable effective air battle management even in a highly contested environment. While this capability cannot replace dedicated AWACS or JSTARS outright, the option provides commanders the ability for deployed air forces to negate the impact of some threat systems on air operations.

The Arsenal

The Arsenal B-52 brings this invaluable capability to the fight with the addition of 70,000 pounds of ordnance or more, tailored to the specific needs of the operating environment. Placing an advanced communications suite such as BACN in the vast available space in the empennage of the B-52 adds network connectivity, paired with firepower, to all package assets within line-of-sight, regardless of their domain.

The B-52 has space. Not only does it have two massive external pylons, but it also has a single massive bomb bay. For the sake of visualization, the vast payload bay could accommodate a single MQ-1 Predator-sized aircraft with deployable airfoils. It has the wiring. The wing pylons have eight stations with modern fiber-optic wiring and recent modifications to the weapons bay bring a similar capability to the internal bomb bay. With limited modifications, the Arsenal B-52 offers the mass of fires desired from the concept. The aircraft is renowned as the platform of choice as a stable, easily modifiable launching platform. Existing suspension systems allow a B-52 to carry 20 long-range JASSM-ERs, 80 Small Diameter Bombs, 24 MALD-Js, and comparable numbers of similarly classed weapons. When no longer limited to the current Air Force inventory or the existing bomber paradigm, the Arsenal B-52 could bring twenty HAAWC torpedoes to the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) fight, 66 AMRAAMs to air-to-air combat, or a pair of weapons capable of reaching earth orbit. Equipped with six of the modified surface attack SM-6 missiles, the Arsenal B-52 could deliver a responsive penetrating weapon capability at substantially greater range than allowed by a launch from a surface ship.  After all, the B-52 spends its energy getting the payload to altitude, giving its missiles more energy to spend going further, faster, or both.

Using the B-52 as an arsenal plane, perhaps carrying air-to-air missiles, standoff weapons, or torpedoes does not suggest the bomber assume primary responsibility for counterair missions, SEAD, or tracking and engaging submarines. The ability of the Arsenal B-52 to carry these weapons in significant quantities dramatically expands the capabilities of the aircraft with primary responsibility to execute those missions. A P-8 Poseidon with only 11 weapons stations may have to vary its payload for both surface and sub-surface targets across an expansive operating area. Arsenal B-52s configured for ASW and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and cued by P-3s or P-8s increase the number of weapons available to strike maritime targets in a given patrol area. Additionally, a single Arsenal B-52 could rapidly transit between operational areas supporting multiple maritime patrol assets until neutralizing all targets or expending all ordnance.

Lastly, a B-52 carrying AMRAAMs may not possess the kinematic ability to pursue a neutral or even advantageous engagement with an enemy fighter. Shot ranges invariably favor faster and more agile aircraft, which can also pursue an aggressive launch-and-leave profile denied to the B-52. However, the Arsenal B-52 configured with air-to-air missiles during a defensive counterair (DCA) mission untethers the Eagles and Raptors from some defensive munitions. A 2009 report on the F-22 program by the Congressional Research Service stated, “The F-22A Raptor is the Air Force’s primary air superiority fighter, providing unmatched capabilities for air supremacy…and cruise missile defense…”  Cued or operating autonomously (if equipped with a modern radar), the Arsenal B-52 can assume primary responsibility for cruise missile defense, particularly for island bases. An F-22 carries a maximum of six AIM-120 AMRAAMs, setting conditions in which even a four-ship formation of F-22s can shoot themselves dry against a large cruise missile wave without neutralizing enough of the inbound missiles to protect the base from damage. A single B-52 would be much harder to empty, freeing the fighters to move their combat air patrols forward in pursuit of the more important launching platforms.

Furthermore, weapons integration options should not end with air-launched weapons in the current inventory. The B-52 already demonstrated the ability to carry 20 of an air-launched version of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), now renowned as a Navy asset, during competition for the Air Launched Cruise Missile program in 1979. TLAM integration on the Arsenal B-52 provides commanders with the diverse capabilities and impressive range of that missile on an aircraft travelling at 500 knots versus a ship traveling at 3 knots.

The Arsenal B-52 could bring a staggering mass of fires to the battlespace with the responsiveness at extended range that only a bomber can provide, freeing other assets for other missions. Just as mass stands firm as a key principle of modern warfare, so too does economy of force. Important to note is the fact each of the weapons referenced represent fielded or previously tested systems that require only integration on the Arsenal B-52, rather than major development. Put simply, adding these weapons to a bomber will prove far less expensive and faster to field than refitting a commercial design.  The table below illustrates the B-52’s existing and potential payloads compared to other weapon systems.

Sorties Required to Match Arsenal B-52 (See table notes at the bottom of this article)

The B-52 fleet is expandable. At this time, there are only 76 B-52s in the active fleet (including Reserves), but 12 additional aircraft remain in long-term storage in Tucson. Refitting all H-models to the proposed Arsenal B-52J standard could bring the fleet size up to 74 combat-coded bombers, with an additional eight training aircraft and four test-coded aircraft. This would allow the B-52J to honor its nuclear commitments while still providing additional bomber or arsenal plane assets to the combatant commanders. A financial analysis of this option would likely find it far cheaper to upgrade and refit existing B-52s than to develop a clean-sheet design for weaponizing commercial or cargo aircraft. Effective weaponization of a wide-body airliner has never been done, and the modification of cargo aircraft has been limited to direct-fire gunship designs.

The B-52 is America’s arsenal plane. With replacement of the upper wing skin, the aircraft has the potential to reach 100 years of service. Transitioning to the J-model and expanding the fleet in conjunction with a committed weapons integration program will provide combatant commanders unparalleled and diverse capabilities to mass fires and share information. When the Arsenal B-52 reaches sunset, the Department of Defense will possess decades of arsenal plane experience and can intelligently pursue a follow-on platform optimized to execute this proven mission requirement.


Major T.J. “LeMay” May is a B-52 WSO with over 2000 hours of experience.  He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School and currently oversees conventional weapons and tactics for B-52 operational testing.

Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or any part of the U.S. government.

Table Notes

  1. Arsenal B-52 carriage of AMRAAM based on the conservative value of AIM-120 length and airfoil wingspan as rectangular prisms within the volume of the B-52 bomb bay. For AMRAAM: 3 x 3 and 2 racks deep (18).  Purpose-built suspension systems overlapping missiles could significantly increase these values.
  2. External carriage of AMRAAM values based on use of 4-pack rails developed by Boeing for F-15 and F/A-18 in a 3-0-3 configuration on the B-52 (48).
  3. Arsenal B-52 carriage of HARM values based on the conservative value of AGM-88 length and airfoil wingspan as rectangular prisms. Airfoil Wingspan for HARM drives assumption to single missile per station in 3-0-3 configuration (12).  Purpose-built suspension systems overlapping missiles could significantly increase these values.
  4. With two external fuel tanks, plus conformal fuel tanks.
  5. With two external fuel tanks and an ECM pod.
  6. With three external fuel tanks.
  7. With two AIM-9, internal carriage only.
  8. SDB I/II future implementation.
  9. Mk-45 VLS.
  10. One Tube consists of seven TLAMs inside a converted Trident missile tube.
  11. Using no more than 25% of the Mk-57 VLS capacity for any single missile type.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung