Northrop weighs new capabilities for B-2 after successful test

A B-2 Spirit’s successful release of a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range weapon during a flight test last year could pave the way for the stealth bomber to one day carry the powerful cruise missiles in combat, according to a Northrop Grumman executive.

The first release of the JASSM-ER from the B-2 marked the culmination of a series of five flight tests at Palmdale, California, that took place from August through December 2021, Shaugnessy Reynolds, vice president and B-2 program manager for Northrop Grumman, told Defense News in an interview last week.

The B-2 took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California, near Palmdale, Reynolds said. Northrop Grumman conducted the test with the Air Force’s 72nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, which is based at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and supports operational testing for aircraft including the B-2.

The tests show it is possible for the Spirit — the Air Force’s sole long-range stealth bomber — to carry and fire the JASSM-ER, a low-observable subsonic cruise missile that can carry a 1,000-pound penetrating warhead, Northrop said.

“That enhances the [B-2′s] features and [shows] why the B-2 is part of the nuclear triad for strategic deterrence,” Reynolds said.

Northrop Grumman first announced the test in a release Thursday, about eight months after it took place. The company said there was a lengthy process for getting the information approved for public release.

The JASSM-ER release was one of three capabilities tested late last year, which together make up a package of upgrades for the B-2, Northrop Grumman said.

During the initial flight tests last year, Reynolds said, the company and the 72nd checked the electrical circuitry, weapon release functions, software, and other components necessary to integrate the JASSM-ER onto the B-2.

Another component of the slate of upgrades is the Radar Aided Targeting System, which Northrop Grumman said would allow the B-2 to fully use the B-61 mod 12 nuclear bomb and complete the bomber’s latest phase of nuclear modernization.

When fully integrated into the B-2, RATS would be used in situations where GPS is knocked out or unavailable and can’t be used to guide nuclear or conventional weapons to their targets, Reynolds said.

The RATS capability would tie a bomb — nuclear or otherwise — into the radar system of the B-2 that released it, Reynolds said. It would use coordinates from the bomber’s radar to figure out where it is on X, Y and Z axes, and where it needs to go, and steer itself in without GPS capabilities, he said.

Eventually, Reynolds said, Air Force Global Strike Command wants its entire fleet of 20 B-2s to have these capabilities now that they’ve been proven to work. But Reynolds said when that will happen is still to be determined, and Northrop and the Air Force are figuring out how to balance modernization efforts with the need to keep enough B-2s operational.

RATS requires additional cabling and other hardware and software modifications to the B-2, Reynolds said.

JASSM-ER can be carried and released from the B-2′s already-existing internal rotary launching assembly, Reynolds said, so there will not need to be any modifications to that assembly. Reynolds said the development and operational tests proved the JASSM-ER would work in the B-2′s current twin weapons bays.

Reynolds said Northrop Grumman is meeting with officials from the Air Force soon in Dayton, Ohio, to discuss the timeline for integrating the JASSM-ER. The schedule for installing RATS on the B-2 fleet is also in the works.

“Right now, we know it’s technically feasible” to field the JASSM-ER on the B-2, Reynolds said. “But the actual fielding decision is an Air Force decision that … we stand ready to support.”

A comment from the Air Force was not immediately available.

Northrop Grumman is working with the Air Force’s 509th Bomber Wing to field those capabilities and the timeline to install the RATS capabilities on the B-2.

Crypto modernization to bolster the security of the high-frequency transmissions the B-2 uses to communicate was also a component of the upgrades being tested, Northrop said.

Since the series of tests that concluded in December, Reynolds said, Northrop has been working on improving the B-2′s ability to automatically update navigation data while in flight. This has included tests at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma in June, and at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri in July.

Northrop is also working on a dynamic targeting capability for the B-2, Shaughnessy said. The company hopes to conduct a lab test of this in the fourth quarter of 2022, which if successful, would be followed by a ground test with the Air Force in 2023 and then further testing.

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