B-2 Stealth Bomber Hardened for More Challenging Missions
The nation’s only long-range bomber designed to penetrate robust air defenses turns 24 years old this July, and has at least another 45 years of service life remaining, said Dave Mazur, vice president and B-2 program manager at Northrop Grumman.
The Air Force will update the bomber's 1980s analog technology with digital systems, he said. Changes include new satellite communication terminals and antennas, cockpit displays and more powerful computer processors and fiber-optic cables.
“Because of the ever evolving threats, the Air Force has to make the investments in the B-2 in modernization and sustainment to keep it relevant to the war fighter,” Mazur said.
The computer upgrades will make it possible to carry two types of bombs instead of one, he said Feb. 14 during a briefing with Washington, D.C.-based reporters. A “flexible strike” concept is currently being studied. A B-2 in its two bomb bays must carry either rotary launcher assemblies for precision-guided munitions such as the JDAM-84, JDAM-109, or smart bomb racks. This will allow for a larger variety of bombs.
The B-2 is also the only anti-access aircraft capable of carrying the massive ordnance penetrator (MOP), a bomb designed to destroy underground structures such as clandestine nuclear weapons facilities. The B-2 can carry two of them at a time.
“We continue to try to improve the capability of that weapon in a stressed environment. We are making mods to the airplane to improve its capability,” he said, referring to anti-access scenarios.
Born at the tail end of the Cold Way, the B-2 also carries tactical nuclear weapons. Its production was halted at 21 aircraft. One was destroyed in a crash. A second suffered a massive fire and is currently being restored, according to an Air Force press release. They fly from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
The nuclear mission requires redundant communications, command and control capabilities. Part of the new upgrades will allow the B-2 to connect to the Air Force’s new highly protected Advanced-EHF satellites. The EHP Increment 2 series of upgrades includes the installation of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) antenna system, which will boost connectivity, Mazur said.
The defensive management system program will update its ability to withstand electronic warfare. Many of the analog computer processor subsystems are becoming obsolete, he noted.
Northrop Grumman has taken a different approach to this program. Normally software development doesn’t begin until a critical design review is completed, after which the Air Force gives the green light to proceed with the program. The CDR isn’t due to be completed until 2014.
The company is bringing the software up to where it can function ahead of this milestone. “We expect by CDR to have 80 percent of the software developed and 70 percent of it tested,” he said. That should shave two years off development time, he said.
“We do not want to reinvent the wheel for the B-2. If there is something on the F-22 or F-35 that we can leverage ... we want to take advantage of that,” he added.
Northrop Grumman also has reinvented the way the B-2s are brought in for programmed depot maintenance. They have undergone refurbishment, particularly to replace its radar-resistant coat, every seven years. Data shows that this can be extended to 10 years, if the aircraft goes to the depot to have some relatively minor part replacements done every five years.
The company believes this new regime — which it hopes to begin by 2016 — will save the Air Force $310 million every 10 years and will make one additional aircraft available.
“That is the equivalent of going to Whiteman Air Force Base and the 509th [bomb wing] and saying, ‘Here’s an extra B-2 for you,’” Mazur said.
Photo Credit: Air Force