B-52 Bomber Is Now Also A Cargo Hauler

Barksdale Air Force Base announced that the B-52H Stratofortress took on a particularly interesting role during a recent exercise. Four such bombers were equipped with relatively sizable cargo containers tailored to fit in their bomb bays in order to test the U.S. Air Force’s rapid deployment concepts, and the demonstration could signal a possible decrease in logistical footprint for future operational bomber deployments. 

A corresponding statement released by Barksdale explained that the four B-52Hs involved in the exercise belonged to the base’s 2nd Bomb Wing. The fleet later deployed north to Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington between August 16-19 to carry out exercises pertaining to the Agile Combat Employment mission, or ACE. Generally, ACE missions are centered around practicing unpredictable distributed operations from dispersed locations so as to both increase survivability and better generate combat power from forward areas. ACE-affiliated exercises are meant to aid in establishing methodologies that would allow the Air Force to operate in more flexible and wily manners through the utilization of austere and remote facilities and small logistical footprints. That aspect especially underscores the importance of the B-52 demonstration, as hauling cargo is often a prevalent supporting factor of any ACE operation.

The recent ACE test mission utilized the four bombers predominately to explore innovative cargo operations, as well as demonstrate uncommon methods of delivering organic maintenance support, all with survivability and austere operations in mind. With the help of the B-52’s obscure On-Board Cargo System, or BOCS, the quartet of B-52s were able to help in a role outside of the bomber mission — as its own cargo support aircraft. 

The Air Force describes BOCS as a cargo container designed to connect to the hardpoints inside the bomb bay of the B-52H. Each B-52 is capable of carrying two BOCSs, one in each respective bomb bay, both of which can hold up to 5,000 pounds of maintenance and support equipment providing a single B-52 with an airlift capability of 10,000 pounds total.

The systems have been employed recently primarily for training exercises, and all three B-52 bomb wings are said to have BOCSs at their disposal. However, before that, B-52s didn’t have much in the way of cargo storage as was divulged by B-52 Maintenance Crew Chief John Brehman in this past War Zone feature.

B-52s can act as their own cargo haulers to a certain extent. Can you speak to that a bit?

The 47 section in the tail is really the only place to store extra equipment. It has only enough space for a launch kit or two, for ground comms headsets and cords, rags, flashlights, toolboxes, and maybe a couple of drag chutes, assuming there’s a stand at the destination to install it. Also some milk crates of engine oil and hydraulic fluid, of course. 

I don’t think I ever saw luggage back there. I’m pretty sure the crew, being deployed, would have their stuff with them in the crew compartment. Again, really it could be used if necessary, like, say going to an overseas airshow without a lot of support equipment or personnel.

BOCS was born, at least in concept, out of the 2006 Air Warfare Battlelab as one of its most useful initiatives. The War Zone has reached out to the Air Force Global Strike Command for further clarification on BOCS’ origin as details about it don’t appear to be readily available but have yet to hear back. Either way, the service seems hopeful that the addition of BLOCS to the ACE mission will lessen the need for en-route cargo support on bomber deployments and therefore reduce the logistics footprint of such operations as well as cut down on overall visibility. 

Airmen from the 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron unload maintenance and support equipment from a B-52 On-board Cargo System after an Agile Combat Employment exercise at Barksdale Air Force Base. Credit: Airman Nicole Ledbetter/U.S. Air Force

“The original concept for BOCS was to create the opportunity for maintenance and operations to tactically ferry anything necessary to help make our constant bomber presence successful,” said Master Sgt. Anthony Williams, 2nd Bomb Wing Aircraft Maintenance Squadron production superintendent.

Time was also a key aspect of the exercise, as it is for the ACE mission as a whole. Having the means necessary to quickly deploy military aircraft to disparate regions on short notice is critical to ACE, and in a maintenance support scenario, that begins with those that keep the BUFF flying. Maintenance personnel from Barksdale’s 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron were split into teams of five and kicked off this deployment by efficiently packing the required repair, maintenance, and replacement equipment into the BOCS. The teams reportedly caught a ride with aircrews from the 96th Bomb Squadron who flew the four B-52s to Fairchild to practice landing, rearming, and repairing the bombers.

“When paired with five onboard maintenance members per aircraft, you have a self-sustained logistics capability able to support ACE by assuring successful aircraft regeneration at a contingency location,” said Maj. Jason Snedeker, Air Forces Strategic-Air Logistics chief of aircraft maintenance. Although, it is unclear how they managed to transport five maintenance members in addition to the crew aboard each of the B-52s and The War Zone is awaiting clarification from the Air Force Global Strike Command on this as well.

Airmen from the 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron unload a B-52 On-Board Cargo System after an Agile Combat Employment Exercise at Barksdale Air Force Base Credit: Airman Nicole Ledbetter/U.S. Air Force

Fairchild Air Force Base, once home to B-52s, also played an important role in the exercise considering that it is the first time a B-52H had operated there since its runways were refurbished in 2010. That level of unfamiliarity on top of the lack of on-station bomber-specific equipment provided the opportunity to challenge the maintenance teams and aircrews in a way similar to that of a real-life ACE operation, leaving them with only their prior experience and the equipment they could fit in the BOCSs to carry out the exercise.

“Thanks to their efforts, we have proven the ability to put significant firepower on target without the large footprint we are used to seeing, and the adversary is used to seeing well in advance of our operational movement,” said Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Gebara, Eighth Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center commander.

Master Sgt. Anthony Williams Jr., left, 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron production supervisor, and Senior Airman Aaron Wiles, right, 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron engine mechanic, remove the outer wall of an On-board Cargo System inside a B-52H at Fairchild Air Force Base. Credit: Senior Airman Chase Sullivan/U.S. Air Force

In terms of weapons transport, using the BOCS approach during an ACE-affiliated bomber deployment could see munitions loaded onto either solely the B-52H’s weapons pylons or distributed between the pylons and the bomb bays so that the aircraft can then fly to its intended location and quickly begin executing operational missions with said munitions. However, there would still be the question of sustaining full-on combat operations at a forward location using this concept. So, it’s feasible that BOCS could ride in one bay, weapons in another and on the pylons, or BOCS in both bays and weapons on the pylons.

A B-52H Stratofortress lands at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington during an Agile Combat Employment exercise. Credit: Senior Airman Chase Sullivan/U.S. Air Force

It is also important to note that four B-52s each carrying 10,000 pounds of cargo is still less than the maximum payload capacity of a single dedicated cargo plane. For example, a C-130 has a max payload of 42,000 pounds while a C-17 caps out at a whopping 170,900 pounds. So, a BOCS-equipped B-52 could certainly help eliminate the need for something like a C-130 to support an initial ACE deployment, as has been done before, but the sustained logistical issues would still apply. The kind of cargo BOCS can carry is also limited by the dimensions of the system, which are correspondingly limited by the dimensions of the bomb bay, so it wouldn’t be able to carry the larger items actual cargo planes typically haul either.

Expanding both the places that bombers can operate from and the means through which they can operate once they get there may be very important in future high-end conflicts where known established bases could be quickly put out of action or just held at risk. The Air Force has been prioritizing such developments for years now, as ensuring that its bombers have multiple bases to fly to and from near key regions would be pivotal in a future large-scale conflict.

Four B-52H Stratofortresses taxi down the runway during an Agile Combat Employment exercise at Fairchild Air Force Base. Credit: Senior Airman Chase Sullivan/U.S. Air Force

Taking advantage of the BOCS in an ACE environment is the latest in a string of enhancements and improvements that will keep the B-52 relevant for decades, at least until 2050 and likely far beyond. The B-52 is slated to get at least one new designation, either B-52J or B-52K, featuring a variety of upgrades including a brand new AESA radar, Rolls Royce F130 turbofan engines, and hypersonic weapons

With its secondary airlift capacity thanks to the BOCS paired with ACE, though, the B-52’s operational flexibility has gotten significantly wider.

Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com