US military sees virtue in 50-year-old aircraft - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 5 August 2012

US military sees virtue in 50-year-old aircraft

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 6th July 12

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 3-4 decades more.

The Indian Air Force 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 (which are 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 that has been flying since 1959. The US Air Force still trains pilots on the Talon.

The IAF’s other big American buy, the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, is more than twenty 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 too 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.”

Greenert argues that, “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 fifty-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 thermonuclear 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% 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

16th August will be 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. The Hercules 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 along with the Boeing 707 and was 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.


  1. Good article Ajai-ji. All of these weapons platforms may be old, but these were way ahead of their times when introduced, and therefore, ever half a century later, they are truly second to none. This is why I think we made a bid mistake by not selecting F-18E/F for the MMRCA. It had everything we needed, plus was battle tested, and came with a proven AESA. All the other competitors came with their AESA either in development phase or only had just stated to build their first AESA at the time of bid submission.

  2. Title is a little misleading. 50 yr old just means the basic design is 50 yrs old. You can't compare the capability of the 1st version of the chinook to the latest variant.
    Its really 50 yrs of evolution of a basic design that is now completely optimized to its fullest.


  3. Come on Shukla Ji, of course its a virtue when US continues to peddle "updated" variants of old hardware. It only becomes a blasphemy when Russia does so. But then what the so called "high & mighty" do shall be the "right stuff", right?

    At the end of the day as you point out correctly, its not the design age of the specific platform but value addition to its capabilities that makes it state of the art. (ducking for cover from salvos fired by Russia haters!)

  4. nope, we will still not buy it.

  5. The key design parameter to aim for is not modernity but adaptability.These aircraft are still there and still valued because they could evolve whereas "superior"designs which could not evolve withered away. A small example was the British obsession of "burying" the engines in the wing. The Victor ,Vulcan,Valiant and the DH Comet all had buried engines but it was uneconomically difficult to re-engine these aircraft and they slowly faded out. The B&37 had the German idea of pylons which had more wetted area but engine thrust increase via newer technology engines was a cinch. The second point is old indeed is gold .Look at what is happening with OBOGS. Make haste slowly.

  6. The fact is adaptability and versatility rather than "modernity " was always a winner everywhere.The podded engine of the Buff is "yuck" in many ways but it has allowed the old thing to be re-engined or up engined easily.The British obsession with the "buried" engine which was "aerodynamically cleaner" Vulcan,victor,Valiant & Comet also helped to push these fine aircraft towards extinction.

  7. @Ajai sir

    US is still using some of its flying platforms that are over 50 years old.

    This gives rise to questions on C17 Globemaster III, which is similar in terms of usability with the aircrafts mentioned above.

    1. C17 production is being shutdown by 2014 because there is no scope for further improvement in the plane or because its becoming uneconomical for the US to make C17s?

    2. What type of plane can replace the C17s?

    3. How many C17s you think India should order apart from the 10 ordered?

    Hope to get answers


    Joydeep Ghosh


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