Air Force Wants to Harden the B-2 Bomber to Withstand an EMP Attack

Airmen prepare a B-2 Spirit for takeoff.
Airmen prepare a B-2 Spirit for takeoff at Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia in support of a Bomber Task Force mission, Aug. 17, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Heather Salazar)

The U.S. Air Force is looking for ways to better protect its B-2 Spirit bombers from a future electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, attack, according to a solicitation posted on the government's acquisition and awards website.

Air Force Materiel Command last month requested a "capabilities package" and related proposals from companies able to produce technology that would help the B-2 withstand an EMP, Brian Brackens, spokesman for the command, confirmed to last week.

While the request for information window has already closed, the Air Force is exploring the modernization option to "increase its survivability," Brackens said last week.

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"The B-2 system program office is continuing modernization efforts on our current fleet to maintain our nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) capacities," Brackens said in an email.

An EMP, a massive surge of energy typically in the wake of a nuclear blast, can disrupt or destroy power systems. Some have warned that the U.S. is vulnerable to such an attack from China; others say it doesn't make sense to worry about an EMP since the accompanying nuclear attack would be the greater threat.

EMPs can also come from natural geomagnetic storms, which would also pose a threat to the bomber.

In 2019, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order for U.S. agencies to craft a coordinated national resilience to electromagnetic pulses or attacks. The order called for additional research and development to address protection needs for crucial stakeholders who could be most affected by the threat, including the nation's power grid stations and military equipment and installations.

B-2 avionics equipment is already "hardened" to withstand some weapons and attacks. The planned upgrade would provide "innovative ways to integrate modern weapons capabilities in order to increase survivability in an anti-access/area denial environment," Brackens said. A2/AD refers to military strategies or systems used to keep an opponent from maneuvering freely through a region via land, sea or air.

"The investment strategy for the B-2 modernization program allows for incremental improvements; we won't detail the enhancements for operational security reasons," Brackens added.

The Air Force has 20 B-2s. It's the Pentagon's only stealth bomber until the B-21 Raider comes online sometime in the mid-2020s. The Air Force plans on retiring the B-2 starting in 2032.

The B-52H Stratofortress -- the bomber expected to live on through the 2050s and beyond -- has already undergone EMP protection testing. Both the B-52 and B-2 are capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Last year, engineers from Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base Compass Rose Test Facility conducted tests using an antenna device to send electromagnetic energy through the aircraft, according to a service release.

"What we're verifying is how the aircraft reacts in response to an electromagnetic pulse," Jiby Varughese, section chief with the 555th Software Engineering Squadron at the base, said at the time. "What happens to the aircraft, how does it perform, is there any damage to the electrical components? That's what we're testing here."

The service noted the tests were in line with the thrust of Trump's executive order and the 2017 National Security Strategy, which highlighted increased threats from China and Russia and their "interest in EMP technology," the release said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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