The Air Force’s B-2 Spirit is receiving a technological upgrade to allow the service’s bat-winged, nuclear capable bomber to fly through 2058.
Air Force officials have started planning the modernization overhaul to include digital nuclear weapons and a new receiver that allows the bomber to receive messages in the event of a nuclear detonation, said Eric Single, chief of the Global Strike division for Air Force acquisition.
Northrop Grumman, the lead defense contractor on the B-2, owns a contract with a $9.9 billion ceiling to complete maintenance and modernization on the fleet of 20 stealth bombers. The fleet upgrade will also include new computer processors, avionics, radar warning receivers and communications gear.
The B-2, which costs about $2.2 billion per plane, can reach altitudes of 50,000-feet and carry 40,000-pounds of payload. First produced in 1989, the stealth bomber was engineered to deliver weapons behind enemy lines and evade Soviet air defenses.
The Air Force had expected to field a fleet of over 130 B-2s, but failures by Northrop Grumman and the Air Force to keep it under budget along with the end of the Cold War led the Pentagon to cut the fleet to 21.
The Air Force will add a Common Very Low Frequency Receiver to improve communication in the event of a nuclear detonation, or what is called a high altitude electro-magnetic pulse environment.
The connection with the new receiver uses Very Low/ Low Frequency, or VLF/LF, waveform. It is secure and beyond line of sight, however it will only transmit data and it is receive only, Single said. This means an air crew could receive targeting instructions from the president, but not be able to transmit information, Single added.
Single explained that there are only two waveforms that would be survivable in this kind of scenario – one of them is EHF which would rely upon the AEHF satellite constellation and the other is VLF, he explained. Adding VLF waveform technology to the B-2 is expected to cost $160 million, Single said.
The new receiver will be added onto the B-2’s existing communications infrastructure which includes UHF-based satellite connectivity and something called the high-performance waveform, which comes from an on-board radio called the PRC 117.
“The B-2 has a large suite of communications systems on board that enable you to do line of sight and beyond line of sight voice and data. You have always had UHF connectivity which means you have always had a beyond line of sight data link,” Single said.
UHF connectivity, which is able to send and receive voice and data beyond line of sight, is recoverable in the event of a nuclear detonation but could be substantially degraded, he explained.
The B-2 is also being engineered with a new flight management control processor designed to expand and modernize the on-board computers and enable the addition of new software.
“We’re re-hosting the flight management control processors, the brains of the airplane, onto a much more capable integrated processing unit. We’re lying in some new fiber optic cable as opposed to the mix bus cable we are using right now. The B-2’s computers from the 80s are getting maxed out and overloaded with data,” Single said.
The new processor increases the performance of the avionics and on-board computer systems by about 1,000-times, he added. The overall flight management control processor effort, slated to field by 2015 and 2016, is expected to cost $542 million.
“This is a Cold War machine with 1980’s computers. The Cold War was great for aerospace but the computers are still stuck in the 80s. It is amazing the level of performance you can get by modernizing those systems,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis, Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy.
The comprehensive B-2 upgrades also include efforts to outfit the attack aircraft with next generation digital nuclear weapons such as the B-61 Mod 12 with a tail kit and Long Range Stand-Off weapon or, LRSO, an air-launched, guided nuclear cruise missile, Single said.
The B-61 Mod 12 is an ongoing modernization program which seeks to integrate the B-61 Mods 3, 4, 7 and 10 into a single variant with a guided tail kit. The B-61 Mod 12 is being engineered to rely on an inertial measurement unit for navigation, Single said.
In addition to the LRSO, B83 and B-61 Mod 12, the B-2 will also carry the B-61 Mod 11, a nuclear weapon designed with penetration capabilities, Single explained.
The LRSO will replace the Air Launched Cruise Missile, or ALCM, which right now is only carried by the B-52 bomber, Single said.
Alongside its nuclear arsenal, the B-2 will carry a wide range of conventional weapons to include precision-guided 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, 5,000-pound JDAMs, Joint Standoff Weapons, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles and GBU 28 5,000-pound bunker buster weapons, among others.
The B-2 can also carry a 30,000-pound conventional bomb known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, Single added.
The upgrades are also improving something called the Defensive Management System, or DMS, a radar warning receiver which helps detect and report threat information.
The $2.2 billion effort, which will replace some of the processors in the DMS system, is slated to be finishing up for delivery by 2021, Single said.
The upgraded DMS is designed to enable the B-2 to have more success against modern, high-tech air defenses, Single explained.
“Advances in integrated air defenses have made it more difficult for anybody to operate in more contested areas. As you know being stealthy or low-observable gives you a lot of advantages as it shrinks the detection ranges of all these systems and creates holes you can use. What the DMS system does is it gives air crews real-time data of where threats are,” he added.
The DMS technology is able to detect emissions coming from enemy air defenses and help display their location, allowing the air crew to avoid threatening air defenses and change course as needed.