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US military sees virtue in 50-year-old aircraft

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

The United States military, the world’s most technologically advanced force, paradoxically fields some of the oldest weapons’ platforms on the planet. At least five aircraft, still in US military service, are already more than 50 years old. And, they are set to serve for three to four decades more.

The has already bought one of these venerable platforms, the C-130 Hercules, in its newest avatar, the C-130J Super Hercules. The IAF is on course to buy another: the CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Trial evaluation has been conducted and a final decision is awaited.

The other half-century-old US aircraft (not on India’s shopping list) are: the B-52 Stratofortress bomber that took to the air in 1952; the KC-135 Stratotanker mid-air refueller that first flew in 1956; and the T-38 Talon, the world’s first supersonic trainer jet, flying since 1959. The still trains pilots on the Talon.

The IAF’s other big American buy, the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, is more than 20 years old. The AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, which the IAF has trial-evaluated and is making a final decision on, is more than 35 years old. So is the F/A-18 Hornet, which the IAF evaluated in the $17-billion medium fighter competition before rejecting it.

US defence experts have questioned the rationale for spending a fortune, as the Pentagon has, on cutting-edge platforms like the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightening II, both next-generation fighters that cost hundreds of billions of dollars to develop. Or, by extending this logic, for India to spend tens of billions on newly designed fighters like the Rafale, rather than implement the IAF’s suggestion to buy upgraded versions of the proven Mirage-2000 fighter.

Expensive, custom-designed platforms are a waste, avers Admiral Jonathan Greenert, America’s new chief of naval operations (CNO). In a controversial article just published in ‘Proceedings’, the journal of the United States Naval Institute, the influential CNO has argued for a “paradigm shift” that emphasises “payloads over platforms”.

Greenert’s argument is: fancy platforms (like the F-35 fighter, though he does not name it) whose superiority is based on design attributes like ‘stealth’, get technologically overtaken by an adversary’s evolving electronics capability. But sturdy, flexible payload carriers (like an aircraft carrier, or like the B-52 and the C-130) get outdated far more slowly since they are “inherently reconfigurable, with sensor and weapon systems that can evolve over time for the expected mission.” He argues, “the weapons, sensors, unmanned systems, and electronic-warfare systems that a platform deploys will increasingly become more important than the platform itself.” That justifies the logic of a 50-year-old platform, with continuously improving electronics, and “stand-off weapons” that can be fired at the enemy from far away without endangering the platform itself. Some of America’s half-century-old legacy aircraft, which will serve 80-90-year service lives, are:

B-52 Stratofortress
The giant, eight-engine B-52 Stratofortress (aficionados call it the BUFF, or Big Ugly Fat Fu**er) was designed in the early Cold War to strike the Soviet Union with thermo-nuclear weapons. B-52 deterrence patrols remained permanently airborne near the Soviet Union’s borders, ready to nuke designated targets. When the US entered Vietnam in the 1960s, B-52s were modified to carry 27 tonnes of conventional bombs, achieving notoriety for their ‘carpet-bombing’ of communist areas.

Today, the US Global Strike Command still fields 85 B-52H bombers. This carries 31.5 tonnes of bombs, mines and cruise missiles to targets 14,000 kilometres away. In Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991, 40 per cent of the high explosive used was dropped by B-52s. In the post 9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, B-52s have led the bombing, fitted with banks of computers that aim with deadly accuracy.

CH-47 Chinook
August 16 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Chinook delivered to the USAF. The heavy-lifting helicopter was quickly deployed to Vietnam, where it became a battlefield icon, carrying up to 55 troops into combat and lifting artillery guns to perilous mountain positions.

Like the B-52, Chinooks periodically return to their factory in Philadelphia for replacing mechanical and electronic components in a phased modernisation. New capabilities are added, such as the ‘pinnacle manoeuvre’, in which avionics permit the pilot to lower the Chinook’s rear onto a pinnacle, or the roof of a house, even as the front overhangs the drop. This allows it to pick up or deposit soldiers or stores in areas inaccessible even to smaller helicopters. The Chinook will remain in service till 2050, by when it would be 90 years old.

C-130 Hercules

The C-130 four-engine turboprop, which entered service in the 1950s, has had the longest continuous production run of any aircraft in history. In service with more than 60 countries, the Hercules has accumulated more than 20 million flight hours.

The aircraft has steadily evolved with additional range, updated avionics and night vision capability. It has been used for transport and special forces tasks, as well as for weather reconnaissance, flying into the eye of hurricanes, and for aerial spraying to suppress mosquito-borne diseases. The latest version, the C-130J Super Hercules, which the IAF has procured, takes off and lands in a shorter distance, climbs faster, flies further and operates in pitch darkness. It will remain in service for another 30 years.

KC-135 Stratotanker
This mid-air refuelling aircraft was developed with the Boeing 707 and designed to refuel Cold War bombers that carried nuclear weapons. It has, however, been the primary US refueller in all operations since then. While the US has started the process of building a new refuelling aircraft, many of the KC-135 fleet would remain in service till 2040.

T-38 Talon
Built by Northrop, the T-38 was the world’s first supersonic trainer aircraft. It continues to train USAF pilots, with an estimated 50,000 pilots having already honed their skills on the T-38. The US has begun the process of identifying a new trainer, but the T-38 looks set to continue in that role for some more years to come.

First Published: Mon, August 06 2012. 00:18 IST