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B-52s to receive comm upgrade

An Air Force B-52 Stratofortress from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., was used for a demonstration of the LITENING pod Oct. 17 at Tyndall AFB, Fla. The demonstration showed the LITENING pod's capability to capture digital imagery and upload it to communications networks. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Mike Kaplan)

An Air Force B-52 Stratofortress from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., was used for a demonstration of the LITENING pod Oct. 17 at Tyndall AFB, Fla. The demonstration showed the LITENING pod's capability to capture digital imagery and upload it to communications networks. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Mike Kaplan)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Installation of a communications system upgrade earmarked for the venerable U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber fleet is scheduled to start at Tinker AFB next month.

The Combat Network Communications Technology system will enable aircrews to send and receive information via satellite links, which will enable them to change mission plans and retarget weapons while in flight. In addition, pilots will be able to interact better with other aircraft and with ground forces.

Currently, mission information must be uploaded to a B-52 before a flight.

Other improvements will include a state-of-the-art computing network with workstations at each crew position and an integrated digital interphone with increased capacity that will allow crew members to talk to each other on headsets equipped with noise-canceling technology.

The $76 million CONECT upgrade will be performed by Boeing and covers low-rate initial production of the first CONECT kits, along with spare parts and maintenance and service at Tinker.

Low Rate Initial Production is the first effort in the production phase of the program. LRIP Lot 1, the first eight CONECT kits, will establish an initial production base for the system and will permit an orderly increase in the production rate for the CONECT system that is sufficient to lead to full-rate production upon successful completion of operational testing.

The LRIP Lot 1 contract, which was awarded in March this year, was for eight CONECT kits. The LRIP Lot 2 contract is projected to be awarded in May 2014, for 10 CONECT kits. Then the full-rate production contract, projected for award in January 2015, will be for 10 CONECT kits.

The fiscal year 2014 production budget funded 30 CONECT kits. Ultimately, CONECT is expected to be installed on all six or seven dozen B-52H aircraft in the Air Force fleet.

The first B-52H to receive a CONECT kit will enter programmed depot maintenance at Tinker in July and is scheduled to depart PDM next April. Each upgrade will take an estimated nine months to complete.

A CONECT kit was installed in a modified B-52 at Edwards AFB in California and has been field tested for several years, Boeing spokesperson Jennifer Hogan said.

The B-52H was delivered to the Air Force in 1961-62. Those aircraft have been kept aloft through regular maintenance and periodic upgrades. For example, GPS capabilities were incorporated into their navigation systems in the late 1980s.

"We are bringing this amazing workhorse of a bomber into the digital age and giving our customer the infrastructure necessary for continued future improvements," said Scot Oathout, Boeing's B-52 program director.

Citing engineering studies, Air Force officials have said the heavy bombers could keep flying for at least another quarter-century.