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Video Above: Maj. Gen. Pringle Manned-Unmanned Teaming

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

As the Air Force B-21 continues to prepare for its first flight, service weapons developers are also surging ahead with ongoing upgrades to its fleet of stealthy B-2 bombers with computer upgrades, next-generation sensors and additional weapons capability.

B-2 

The near term Air Force plan is to ensure that the B-2 can remain effective against highly advanced air defenses for at least a decade or more into the future until large enough numbers of the new B-21 arrive. The concept is for these stealth bombers to fly alongside each other, and since the highly secret B-21 is believed to incorporate paradigm-changing stealth technology, the Air Force is apparently making decisive efforts to ensure its small number of 20 B-2 bombers remain competitive.

The upgrades to the B-2 are multifaceted as they span a wide range of technologies to include more secure high-frequency radio communications, a new computer processor that is 1,000-times faster than the previous one and weapons adaptations such as upgrades to the nuclear-capable B-61 bomb.

In recent years, the Air Force has been making rapid progress with several critical upgrades to the B-2 through the addition of sensors referred to as the Defensive Management System. These new sensors, which continue to be progressively integrated into the fleet beginning several years ago, are intended to enable the B-2 to locate and therefore elude enemy air defenses. This is particularly critical for the B-2 as an emerging new generation of Russian air defenses may have some ability to track stealth aircraft. 

The Russian media has made this claim, although it is unclear whether it has been verified, as there is a huge difference between “seeing” something and actually being able to establish a radar track and “engage” or “hit” the target. Nonetheless, new Russian air defenses are certainly a threat taken seriously by the US, as they not only reach longer ranges but also use high-speed digital processors able to network air defenses to one another, share target track data and essential “blanket” areas with coverage. They also operate on a growing number of frequencies, however as mentioned, there is a huge disparity between the ability of lower-frequency “surveillance radar” to determine that a stealth airplane is “there,” and higher frequency engagement radar capable of sustaining a much smaller and more narrow radar track on a moving target.

USAF B-2

USAF B-2

While the specifics of how stealth may perform against specific radar systems such as Russia’s upgraded S-400 or newer S-500 are likely not available for understandable security reasons, Senior Air Force leaders have said that stealth configuration, coating, thermal signature management and radar-absorbing materials are merely “one arrow” in the quiver when it comes to defeating enemy air defenses. This seems quite significant and of relevance to the B-2s Defensive Management System because the new advanced sensors ar specifically engineered to locate advanced enemy air defenses so that stealthy B-2 bombers can essentially “elude” or fy around them to minimize risk

It is not clear exactly how long the B-2 will fly, however significant steps are being taken to ensure it could perform in a highly-contested war scenario against a technologically advanced adversary

With these upgrades, the stealthy Air Force B-2 will likely fly into the next several decades due to a series of high-tech, performance enhancing upgrade designed to improve its sensors, expand its weapons arsenal and massively increase its computer processing speed.

The continued Air Force emphasis upon upgrading legacy aircraft continues to surge forward with intensity to ensure decades old fighters and stealth bombers like the B-2 remain effective in a highly-sophisticated threat environment.

Advancing this concept and strategic focus, the Air Force and Northrop Grumman have demonstrated an ability for the legacy B-2 bomber to fire a cutting edge, upgraded variant of the Joint-Air-to-Surface-Standoff-Missile. A just released press statement from Northrop Grumman says that the JASSM-ER (Extended Range) fired successfully from a B-2 this past December, marking a significant shift forward in the realm of stand-off air attack. The JASSM Extended Range (ER) is the most current variant of the weapon now in use, which also arms B-1b bombers and F/A-18s

When existing aircraft such as the B-2, F-15 or B-52 fly armed with an aircraft-launched missile able to destroy surface targets from as far as 500 nautical miles, they are tactically equipped for serious attacks on enemy air defenses and ground forces and air defenses at safer stand-off ranges. Most state-of-the-art Integrated Air and Missile Defense Systems can max out at about a 125mile range, placing armed aircraft in a position to strike with less risk of destruction when launching Air-to-Surface attacks.

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With this tactical equation in mind, the Air Force and Lockheed have been taking new steps with software upgrades to the Joint-Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), weapon which first emerged roughly 10 years ago. The initiative seeks to advance a continued upgrade program to the weapon known as JASSM Operational Realtime Combat Analysis Increment Two (ORCA). This is a technical overhaul program engineered to improve targeting data linkages, graphical user interface with strike data and various computer systems pertaining to the weapon’s launch and attack flight, according to SAM.gov.

ORCA is essentially a functional software upgrade to the weapon, a technical adjustment becoming increasingly common when it comes to weapon improvements. Software upgrades to missiles, launchers, delivery systems and even projectiles such as ground-fired artillery can improve guidance, extend range in some cases, refine targeting or help build in a programmable fuse. Pre-programmable fuses can give attackers newer, fast-adjusting methods of attack such as proximity detonation, delayed explosives or certain kinds of variable yield effects, for instance, with weapons such as air dropped bombs.

While few details regarding the software enhancements are available, it would not be at all surprising if the weapon were being further adjusted to destroy moving targets. Descriptions of the weapon already cite an ability to hit “relocatable” targets, something which introduces or refers to the tactical advantages associated with striking targets on the move. Improving moving target-guidance with technologies such as laser pointing or increasing levels of autonomy for weapon guidance is an area of great focus for weapons developers. 

The Sam.gov description of ORCA does specifically cite automation and more weapons are being modified to improve trajectory. Finally, perhaps most of all, upgrades will make certain in-flight adjustments to hit targets on the move in combat. An ability to, for instance, destroy a moving armored column from a fighter jet operating hundreds of miles away brings what might be called a rare and defining technical advantage.

This capability is of great significance to the B-2 as the ability to destroy enemy air defenses from further ranges of course makes the stealth aircraft much less vulnerable

The Air Force and Northrop Grumman are aslo integrating a cutting edge crypto modernization and Radar Aided Targeting System (RATS) into its stealthy B-2 bomber as part of of an intense, wide ranging series of upgrades to the aircraft designed to ensure it can sustain operational functionality in modern, high-threat environments against technologically sophisticated adversaries.

RATS will, among other things, better enable the B-2 to manage and deliver the new, upgraded nuclear-capable B-61 Mod 12 weapon.

The B61-12 adds substantial new levels of precision targeting and consolidates several different kinds of attack options into a single weapon. Instead of needing separate variants of the weapon for different functions, the B61-12 by itself allows for earth-penetrating attacks, low-yield strikes, high-yield attacks, above surface detonation and bunker-buster options in a single weapon.

Air Force officials describe this, in part, by referring to the upgraded B61-12 as having an “All Up Round.”

“The unrivaled capabilities of the B-2 make it the only long range, penetrating stealth bomber currently in the U.S. arsenal,” said Shaugnessy Reynolds, vice president and B-2 program manager, Northrop Grumman, said in a written statement . “Committed to continued modernization of the B-2, we’re leveraging our company’s innovation in digital engineering and its decades of leadership in designing and maintaining low observable platforms to keep the B-2 Spirit mission ready.”

The B61-12 has previously been integrated and test-dropped from an Air Force B-2 bomber as part of a fleet wide stealth bomber upgrade which includes new enemy radar-evading on board sensors, faster computer processing and new weapons adaptations.

Streamlining, upgrading different nuclear bomb variants into a single weapon brings a host of advantages, to include the ability for a weapons-carrying aircraft such as a B-52 or B-2 to arm itself with a greater number of bombs. If each individual attack alternative with a single bomb then pilots could tailor or choose between a wide range of strike options with fewer on-board bombs, and therefore operate with an ability to carry more of them on one mission. This would prove useful in the event that some kind of multi-faceted or large-scale nuclear attack became necessary and the offensive force needed to drop multiple bombs of the same variety as well as some with different or alternative explosive configurations.

While the idea of a tactical or “limited” nuclear strike remains a subject of intense debate, Air Force thinking aligns with the idea that simply giving commanders and air crews a wider sphere of options strengthens the overall deterrence posture. Some are of view that a clear message should be sent to potential adversaries that any use of nuclear weapons should be met with a massive, catastrophic response, suggesting that there would be no argument for any kind of limited nuclear war or proportional response. The thinking associated with proponents of giving commanders multiple nuclear options maintain that more possibilities of counterattack, regardless of how weapons may or may not be used, functions as an effective deterrent. For instance, technology enabling low-yield, earth penetrating or contained “area” detonation nuclear options might dissuade a potential attacker from risking a tactical or low-yield nuclear attack.

As for Northrop’s discussion of Crypto modernization, a company statement says it is designed to further improve the communications security of various high frequency transmissions.

“The B-2 may now securely utilize advanced communication devices in the future threat environment. Earlier this year, Northrop Grumman conducted a successful communications flight test with modern cryptology at its Oklahoma City Weapons System Support Center site,” a company statement said. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.