The Air Force is making upgrades to the communications and weapons systems carried by the B-2 bomber by accelerating development of an air-launched, guided nuclear cruise missile and preparing to produce modifications to the existing B-61 nuclear bomb, service officials said.
The B-2 upgrades will outfit the attack aircraft with next generation digital nuclear weapons called the B-61 Mod 12 with a tail kit — and speed up development of a nuclear cruise missile called the Long Range Stand-Off weapon or, LRSO, Eric Single, chief of the Global Strike division for Air Force acquisition, said in an interview with Military.com.
The LRSO will replace the Air Launched Cruise Missile, or ALCM, which right now is only carried by the B-52 bomber, Single said.
“The 2016 president’s budget accelerates this program. We plan on a milestone in the middle of next year,” he added.
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.
“Four different variants will all be consolidated into a single variant. The tail kit will allow you to maintain a maneuvering tail and increase accuracy,” Single said.
The B-61 mod 12 is slated to enter production in 2017 and be finished by 2018, Single said.
“Software upgrades will help integrate the B-61 mod 12 into the B-2. This will upgrade storage management processors onto more capable integrated processors to bring more capacity to integrate a digital weapon like the B-61 Mod 12 or LRSO in the future,” Single explained.
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.
All the B-2’s nuclear weapons are engineered to function in a non-GPS environment.
“In that type of exchange, GPS would not be available to you,” said.
Alongside its nuclear arsenal, the B-2 carries 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 Air Force is also improving the communications technology designed into the B-2 to allow for greater connectivity in the event of a nuclear detonation, an event called an electro-magnetic pulse, or EMP, environment.
The service plans to enter production next year of what’s called a Common Very Low Frequency Receiver, a communications system which used uses Very Low/ Low Frequency, or VLF/LF, waveform.
This waveform 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 back in a two-way fashion, 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 Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or 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.
“VLF receivers will start going on planes in the next few years,” he added.
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 Air Force is also exploring high-speed, high-frequency communications through the EHF waveform which would need the AEHF satellite constellation. Single said this could replace the existing UHF communication on Milstar satellites – in order to allow for survivable, two-way communication in the event of a nuclear attack.
“EHF has a higher data rate capability. It is also survivable and can transmit and receive. With the bandwidth you can get out of that you can send large volumes of data. The B-2 currently uses Milstar UHF which is not a survivable waveform,” Single added. “This would help us transition from everyday communications beyond line of sight to an EHF/AEHF satellite constellation.”
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 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.
The Air Force is currently fielding what’s called increment 1 of the improvements to the flight management control processors. The initial work on this will be completed by the end of next year, Air Force officials said.
“This provides more processing power for the avionics systems on the airplane. This improves the performance of the on-board computers by 1,000 times,” Single said.
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.
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.
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.
— Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com