Boeing lands B1-B systems overhaul

Boeing Co. won a $125 million contract last month to re-equip the Cold War-era B1-B bomber with a new generation of computer technology, in preparation for its future role as a conventional bomber.

Boeing will install the new avionics system under a five-year Engineering and Manufacturing Development subcontract with Rockwell International Corp., which has overall responsibility for upgrading the B1-B.

Retiring 25-Year-Old Technology

The new technology - standard computer components in specialized packaging - will replace 25-year-old IBM Corp. computers that were last upgraded in the early 1980s, when the B1-B carried nuclear weapons.

Those computers, while adequate for the narrowly defined nuclear task, are limited for a more expansive conventional role. The current IBM computer, for example, has only 128K of RAM.

Over the next nine months, Boeing will work on defining hardware and software requirements, before beginning system development and engineering early next year.

The Air Force's basic requirements call for 32-bit computers, a high-speed data bus and a new data transfer system. Boeing also will convert the software from IBM's Jovial programming language to the more modern Ada.

"Fundamentally, the avionics computer complex has been the limiting factor in being able to cost-effectively add future capabilities," said Kal Fekete, the B1 chief engineer and program manager for the conventional upgrade of the B1-B at Rockwell's North American Aircraft Division, Seal Beach, Calif.

The new computers will allow Rockwell and the Air Force to arm the B1-B with new and additional smart weapons, communications upgrades and data links; they will also provide real-time information to the flight cockpit.

For example, between data link communications and the new processing power, B1-B pilots will be able to pull down the necessary information to replan a mission while still in flight. Additionally, the aircraft will be capable of handling the latest and greatest in "intelligent" weapons systems, beginning with a wind-corrected munitions system.

The new system will be flexible enough to add even more capability in the years ahead, said Paul Collins, Boeing's B1-B program manager. The new computers will provide "the ability to accommodate weapons as they develop without extensive modification to the software," he said.

Boeing is somewhat constrained in its choice of components, however, because it must work within the footprint of the existing system.

The IBM computer now installed uses one of the first processors built that was nuclear-hardened, Fekete said. However, he added, because modern processors are able to pack more power in a smaller space, "you will retain growth slots in the motherboard so you can expand the memory and [input/output bandwidth] for years to come."

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