David C. Isby covers America’s extraordinary B-2 Spirit bomber
Combat, deployments exercises, deterrence, upgrades: the US Air Force’s small but capable force of 20 Northrop Grumman Block 30 B-2 Spirit stealth bombers have done all of these during 2017. Until the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, the next-generation stealth bomber, enters service in the 2020s, the B-2 force, equipping the 509th Bomb Wing and the associated Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Bomb Wing, will remain the most advanced US strategic bombers, enablers of the Air Force’s global reach and a powerful tool of US national security strategy.
Combat: a return trip to Libya
Operation Odyssey Lightning marked the first return of the B-2 to combat since Operation Odyssey Dawn, also over Libya, in 2011. Launched from the B-2’s home station at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, during the closing hours of the Barrack Obama administration on January 17-18, the operation followed a week of mission planning by 20 key personnel including pilots, weapons and intelligence specialists.
At the time of the mission Captain Nathan Mueller was a recent graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School Integration course (WSINT) at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He said: “It was a very humbling experience when my squadron commander told me I would be fiight lead for what would become the B-2’s participation in Operation Odyssey Lightning. The dynamic targeting and inherent integration that took place en route to Libya is not something B-2 pilots train for on a regular basis. It was, however, very much a part of the weapons school syllabus, particularly during WSINT.”
The target was bombed by two B-2s: Spirit of Georgia (serial number 89-0129) and Spirit of Pennsylvania (93-1087). A third B-2 made the long fiight with them, accompanying them as an air spare, before turning for home over the Mediterranean. Two ground spare aircraft, made ready as back-ups, remained at Whiteman.
The two strikers – call signs Clip 11 and Clip 12 – flew from the US through international airspace until turning to hit their target near Sirte, an ISIS training and headquarters facility, where, as then-US Defense Secretary Dr Ash Carter said: “There certainly are people who were actively plotting operations in Europe and may also have been connected to attacks that have already occurred in Europe…we know some of the ISIS operatives in Libya were involved with plotting attacks.”
The two B-2s hit their target through light overcast cloud at midnight local time ten seconds from their planned time over target according to US Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein when he proudly told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on June 6. Eighty-five 500lb (227kg) GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) were used, fused with a few milliseconds delay to penetrate and destroy all of the wooden structures in the target area. All 85 JDAMs impacted together, in under a minute. No other aircraft could have delivered so many guided munitions simultaneously to a target while retaining the element of surprise.
Each of the three B-2s refuelled five times from 13 KC-135 and KC-10 tankers launched from McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey and RAF Mildenhall, England. Spare tankers refuelled some of the 13 primary tankers and provided redundancy. US Marine Corps assets – for potential search and rescue missions including MV- 22B Ospreys – were positioned near the target area. The strike was followed, in the target area, with the arrival of armed US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicles, targeting fleeing vehicles with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. When the two primary B-2 bombers landed back at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri they had been airborne for 33 hours.
Deployments, exercises and total force
With rising international tension in northeast Asia, the South China Sea and on NATO’s eastern borders, B-2 deployments enable the US to demonstrate its continued commitment and resolve to coalition partners and potential aggressors alike. This was demonstrated in August 2016 at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. While B-2s have been deploying to Guam – where specially designed typhoon-proof hangars were built for them in 2005 – for years, this deployment represented the first time the type joined B-52Hs and B-1Bs to bring together detachments of all three Global Strike Command bomber types on Guam. All three types took part in exercises, carrying out show-of-presence fiights and live-fire training missions.
In 2017, B-2s participated in a second deployment of all three bomber types, this time to Europe. In June, two B-2s joined three B-52Hs from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana and three B-1Bs from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota at RAF Fairford, England, to participate in the Exercise BALTOPS and Saber Strike. A B-2 Spirit also made a public appearance at the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford in July with a series of fly-bys. Participation in BALTOPS-Saber Strike and RIAT were the first and second time all three bombers had deployed together to Europe.
Commander, 322nd Air Expeditionary Group, Colonel Jared Kennish, the officer in charge of the deployment, said: “The assurance and deterrence missions these three aircraft are supporting, are key to reinforcing our commitment to our allies in NATO – in a very visible, tangible way – that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, no matter what.”
Colonel Kennish is a Missouri Air National Guard Officer, who by deploying to Fairford demonstrated US Air Force Total Force Integration as well as NATO solidarity. Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st BW is fully integrated with the 509th BW at Whiteman and on deployment. Active-duty personnel serve alongside full-time and part-time Air National Guard personnel. Active-duty and Guardsmen train to the same standards and work as a single team. That Guardsmen do not rotate to other units or assignments after their tour of B-2 duty but rather stay and provide continuity is a great advantage for the specialised B-2 community. Kennish said: “Operations like the ones we’re supporting put an exclamation point on our record of total force team success.”
Technicians assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron prepare a B-2 Spirit aircraft to be towed at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.cr@TSgt Andy Kin/US Air Force
In addition to deployments, B-2s have taken part in a number of exercises, including Red Flag and, most recently, Mobility Guardian in August 2017.
The main factor which limits such deployments is the small size and limited availability of the B-2 force. Of the 20 B-2s in US Air Force service, 19 are operational one is assigned to fiight-test; of these, 15 are combat-coded. Commander, Global Strike Command, General Robin Rand told the House Armed Services Committee on September 29, 2015: “When B-2s in overhaul or maintenance are taken into account, we have about 11 or 12 airplanes at any time that we really have our hands on.”
Training and other deployments further reduce the number of B-2s that can be put on alert for combat. In August 2017, following North Korea’s missile tests, it was reported that seven or eight B-2s were locked and loaded in case of immediate need. Mission planning on new targets, if required, could be carried out in as little as 12 hours.
Combat-coded B-2s, along with 46 nuclearcapable (out of 76 total combat-coded) B-52Hs, constitute the air-breathing leg of the US strategic triad responsible for nuclear deterrence. Of these aircraft, the B-2s are the only ones capable of delivering nuclear gravity bombs, including those intended to defeat hardened and deeply buried targets; B-52Hs are now limited to a standoff role using the aging AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). B-1Bs are no longer nuclear-capable.
Total Force Integration of the 509th and 131st Bomb Wings has included, since 2013, the nuclear strategic deterrence mission. The 131st is the only Air National Guard unit to be nuclear-certified, having cleared a formidable number of operational performance evaluations and readiness assessments to achieve full operational capability alongside the 509th. Kennish said: “There may have been a time early in our transition when people wondered if our two wings could make total force integration work in B-2 operations, maintenance and support missions, but we’ve long since proved the concept at Whiteman.”
For conventional deterrence, the B-2 holds at risk what potential adversaries value most in the event of a conflict: their command bunkers in which the leadership shelters. A B-2 is capable of using a wide range of weapons including the 30,000lb (13,608kg) GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, exclusively employed from the B-2. On March 1, 2016, then US Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, General Mike Holmes told the House Armed Services Committee: “The B-2 is the only long-range strike aircraft capable of penetrating and surviving advanced integrated air defence systems to deliver weapons against heavily defended targets.”
Even though the B-2 is the newest bomber in US Air Force service, the type is still 25 years old and incorporates an older generation of stealth technology. It was designed for a 20,000 flight-hour service life, which has been extended to 40,000 hours, allowing the B-2 to remain operational until 2058.
On May 25, 2017 General Rand told the House Armed Services Committee: “We are starting the most aggressive modernization period in the history of the B-2.”
In 2015, the Air Force decided to completely overhaul, through programmed depot maintenance (PDM) – including reskinning – each B-2 every seven years rather than every nine years. This will increase the number of aircraft available for operations as well as decreasing the per-aircraft upgrade costs. Starting in 2016, B-2s have been going through the yearlong PDM at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale California facility at approximately six-month intervals.
Other upgrades, including transponders allowing the B-2 to transit controlled airspace, are being installed. Vice Commander, Global Strike Command, Major General Michael Fortney told the House Armed Services Committee on September 14, 2016: “Taking one B-2 offline is a significant bill for the country to pay. And so we’re bundling the IFF [identification friend or foe] upgrade, with a mode five [transponder] upgrade, at the same time. This takes the aircraft down once and allows the depot to go in and break it open just once to make both modifications.”
Challenges to upgrading the B-2s remain. General Rand said: “Small fleet dynamics continue to challenge our sustainment efforts primarily due to vanishing vendors and diminishing sources of supply. We are striving to maintain the proper balance of fleet modernization and sustainment while maintaining combat readiness.
“With the proliferation of anti-access area denial [A2/AD] threats, we are ensuring the B-2’s ability to penetrate enemy defences is maintained with the Defensive Management System Modernization (DMS-M) programme.”
Intended to improve threat radar detection, identification and avoidance capabilities, the DMS-M programme passed its milestone B review in 2016, receiving Department of Defense (DoD) goahead to commence the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the $2.67 billion programme.
DMS-M upgrades include a digital electronic support measures (ESM) subsystem, new ESM antennas, and modern display processing units to improve threat radar detection, identification and avoidance capabilities. Associated software components integrate these upgraded systems with existing B-2 avionics systems to improve overall pilot threat awareness, threat reaction and survivability. Northrop Grumman is both prime contractor and integrator with BAE Systems developing the digital ESM receivers, Ball Aerospace and L-3 Randtron providing the ESM antennas and Lockheed Martin supplying display processors.
In June 2017, the DoD announced a significant change to the DMS-M programme – details remain classified – intended to increase its performance while not leading to higher costs or schedule delays. Before the end of 2017, the DMS-M programme will undergo a system-level critical design review and a B-2 will be selected for modification – a nine-month process – to carry out the planned 30-month fiight testing programme, effectively taking away five percent of the operational force. Flight-testing will start in FY2018, leading to an Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center operational assessment in FY2019 and initial operational test and evaluation in FY2020. The test programme will be lengthy because any change to the B-2 – such as new antennas – has to be carefully tested to ensure it does not compromise stealth characteristics. The milestone C decision – the DoD go-ahead for production and deployment – for the DMS-M had been scheduled for December 2018 but software issues have delayed this to April 2019. The first DMS-M deliveries will take place in 2022 and initial operational capability is planned for 2022-2023.
Combatant Commander of US Strategic Command, General John Hyten told the SASC on September 20, 2016: “We have to look at the communication upgrades of the B-2 in concert with the entire bomber force. Right now, it’s probably the most important element of our bomber capability, and is extremely important to maintain the viability now and in the future.”
General Holmes provided more details: “The Common Very-Low-Frequency/Low Frequency (VLF/LF) receiver programme provides the B-2 with a VLF/LF receiver for secure, survivable strategic communications capability. The Air Force will advance fielding the Extremely High Frequency Satellite Communications and Computer Increment 1 programme, a mid-life avionics upgrade to the fiight management computers and digital storage and data buses.”
The US Air Force had originally planned to equip B-2s with Family of Advanced Beyond line-of-sight Terminals (FAB-T) that, after a troubled development, is planned to enter full-rate production in 2018. However, rising costs forced a reconsideration of this requirement, and an alternative acquisition strategy is to be implemented later this year.
General Rand concluded: “Finally, the B-2 is upgrading to carry the B61-12 nuclear gravity weapon. This upgrade is critical to ensuring the bomber leg of the nuclear triad remains a visible deterrent to those who wish us harm.”
The B61-12 has already undergone fiight-testing on B-2s with production of the nuclear bomb planned to start in 2020. General Holmes said: “The Air Force will continue development efforts to rehost the Stores Management Operational Flight Program software in the Flexible Strike programme enabling the B-2 to take advantage of advanced digital weapon interface such as those used by the B61-12.”
The B-2 will be modified to carry the Raytheon GBU-53 Small Diameter Bomb II and the Lockheed Martin AGM-158B JASSM-ER (Joint Air-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range) as armament options.
While the B-2 is planned to remain operational until 2058, the question remains how long its all-aspect stealth capability will allow it to penetrate defended airspace before it has to switch to stand-off weapons delivery. During a Mitchell Institute meeting in Washington DC on May 25, US Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Stephen Wilson said he wants to continue to invest in the B-2 “to ensure they can penetrate air defences through the 2020s”. Speaking at a Mitchell Institute meeting on May 19 Fortney said: “The B-2 is an incredible airplane and will be for a while longer. It demonstrated this in January [over Libya] and can demonstrate this tomorrow, but this gap is closing”.
When the B-2 is likely to be unable to penetrate, the B-21 should be available to take over those missions. Referring to the B-21, Fortney said its next-generation stealth technology would make it “a penetrating bomber that is going to be an incredible capability. All the things the B-2 can do today, the B-21 will be able to do 30 years from now”. Integrated with the Long Range Stand Off strategic missile and conventional missiles such as the AGM-158B JASSM-ER, the B-2 could then provide additional standoff capabilities. Until then, the B-2 will likely experience more years like 2017, when, in combat, deployments or being upgraded, it remains at the centre of US airpower.