The oldest combat aircraft currently serving in the U.S. Air Force, the B-52 Stratofortress is set to outlive both the B-1B Lancer and the B-2 Spirit in its service due to its reliability, simplicity and low maintenance which have made it a highly prized asset over highly complex and often troublesome more modern designs. Their low maintenance requirements allow them to fly regularly and with minimal servicing or spare parts, an invaluable asset in times of war which America’s newer bombers lack. In service since 1955, the bombers have been extensively modernised to carry a heavy armament of both internal and external weapons, which include state of the art standoff munitions that allow the aircraft to perform long range strikes and thus avoid the need to operate in range of enemy combat aircraft or air defences - which would put the bulky 200,000kg bomber at risk.
With the B-52 set to serve alongside the upcoming B-21, a highly secretive stealth bomber which will revolutionise the U.S. Air Force’s strike capabilities, the service has sought to upgrade its Stratofortresses to carry a considerably heavier payload - quadrupling the weight of munitions the aircraft can carry externally. A new external weapons pylon will reportedly increase its external load from approximately 4,500kg to over 18,000kg. The new pylon would allow the bombers to carry any of the air launched munitions currently in the inventory of the U.S. Air Force, including the Massive Ordnance Air Burst Bomb (MOAB) first deployed in Afghanistan in 2017.
A report by the Air Force Material Command, in response to an information request, stated regarding the modification planned for the B-52: “The current Improved Command Pylon (ICP)… was designed in 1959 and has been in service since the 1960s. When it was introduces, there wasn’t a requirement nor did anyone force a need to carry weapons heavier than 5,000 Ib (2268kg). It was modified in the late 1990s… and has performed exceptionally well… (but) it has limitations when it comes to heavy weight capacity. With current heavy weapons exceeding 5000 Ib there is a new requirement for a replacement external carriage pylon assembly.” The types of weapons which could be under development for the B-52 remain unknown, but could include air launched ballistic missiles for advanced standoff capabilities - something China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force has invested in for its own H-6 bomber fleet.
With the United States military restricted by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in the deployment of ground based ballistic missiles with a range of over 500km, limiting its ability to match recent developments in Chinese, North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles programs as non signatory parties, developing an air launched ballistic missile could well be an effective means to circumvent the limitations of the treaty. Russia, the treaty's other signatory, has for its part adopted a similar approach - modifying its MiG-31 interceptors to deploy Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles with a range of 2000km. Had these missiles been deployed from the ground rather than from an aircraft, they would have violated the INF treaty. The potential to develop the B-52 as a ballistic missile carrier, potentially armed with hypersonic missiles which the U.S. has redoubled its efforts to develop since March 2018, could well give the U.S. Air Force one of its most formidable long range strike platforms - a considerable asset against near peer hostile forces in a number of theatres capable of employing both conventional and nuclear warheads. With both China and Russia having modified their own heavy aircraft for such a role, the United States military may well follow suit and develop the B-52 into a ballistic missile platform to retain parity with its two most greatest competitors.