US has opted to enhance B-2 bombers with a $7 billion investment

The U.S. Department of Defense recently earmarked Northrop Grumman to receive a significant contract, estimated to be worth $7 billion, for the upkeep and modernization of B-2 Spirit bombers. This announcement emerged on April 2nd. 

Two US-made B-2 bombers price equals Portugal's defense budget
Photo credit: USAF

Within the military’s stipulations for this contract is the requirement that all corresponding maintenance and modernization tasks will be conducted at several air bases. These include Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio, Edwards AFB in California, and Hill AFB in Utah. Washington has set an early May 2029 deadline for this contract. 

As Northrop Grumman pushes forward with the development of their avant-garde B-21 Raider aircraft, the military’s interest in the B-2 Spirit bombers seems to be waning. However, a sizable $7 billion investment was recently designated for the upkeep and modernization of the existing fleet of 20 B-2 bombers for the U.S. Air Force. This could be seen as a clear commitment to the B-2. And rightly so, until the B-21 Raider is in service, the B-2 remains the only stealth bomber in America’s arsenal capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Two US-made B-2 bombers price equals Portugal's defense budget
Video screenshot

Disclosure of the upgrade

There is no explicit mention in the Department of Defense’s statement concerning what upgrades Northrop Grumman engineers plan to implement on the B-2. Known for its operational challenges, the B-2 is expected to undergo a transformation to increase its maintainability, enhance flight performance, and boost lethality. The ultimate goal is to achieve compatibility with the forthcoming B-21. 

Insider sources reveal that the B-2 upgrade will focus on two pivotal areas – stealth functionality and mission planning software. The existing panels on the B-2 that require opening can only be accessed upon removal of its stealth coating, as per the admission of the US Army. Once the task is completed, the stealth coating needs to be reapplied. This meticulous recoating procedure, although precise, influences the bomber’s form and function. 

Regarding the mission planning software, Northrop Grumman has already developed a version, purpose-built for the next-gen bomber – the B-21 Raider. To establish future compatibility between the B-2 and the B-21, this particular software will be installed in the Spirit. This specific software is separated from the B-2’s flight control software, thereby offering quicker testing and deployment of new applications. 

According to experts, the implementation of B-21-based software in the B-2 system would be beneficial for the U.S. Air Force. This integration will significantly speed up the process as there would be no need to wait for the production of several B-21 prototypes, and the software can undergo testing in an operational, airborne bomber.

B-2 will fly for a long time

In 2023, insiders from the US defense sector revealed Northrop Grumman’s ambitious plans to enhance the B-2’s stealth capabilities and software. But that’s not where the story ends. The aerospace giant also intends to bolster the bomber’s survivability and support systems. “The aim is to keep the B-2 not merely ready for action, but also relevant to the evolving nature of warfare,” stated Niki Kodama, the head of Northrop’s B-2 program in 2023, in a conversation with FlightGlobal. Although specific details remain under wraps, Kodama hinted that some of the latest long-range precision weaponry from the USAF will be integrated into the B-2. 

Two US-made B-2 bombers price equals Portugal's defense budget
Video screenshot

The selected 2029 deadline for the B-2’s modernization reveals that the US Air Force is far from bidding farewell to these 20 bombers. On the contrary, the B-2 is expected to stay as an active stealth bomber fleet for many more years to come. This status quo is likely to persist until the much-anticipated B-21 becomes mass-produced and entirely operational, accomplishments which, as we’re all aware, may take quite some time.

An air defense nightmare

The B-2 Spirit serves as a crucial asset in the American Air Force inventory. This formidable heavy strategic bomber, renowned for its low observable stealth technology, is skillfully designed to infiltrate and penetrate the most secure anti-aircraft defenses. In simple terms, it’s a two-crew flying wing design able to demonstrate significant power. 

In the sky, the B-2 Spirit is a true colossus. With an impressive wingspan spanning 172 feet [52.4 meters] and a length that measures 69 feet [21 meters], its size cannot be denied. Also, standing at an imposing 17 feet [5.18 meters] tall and boasting a colossal wing area of 5,140 square feet [478 square meters], its ability to carry substantial payloads is unequivocal. 

The heart of the B-2 system is powered by four potent General Electric F118-GE-100 engines. These engines contribute 17,300 pounds of thrust individually, propelling the B-2 to achieve striking speeds of up to 680 miles per hour [1,100 kilometers per hour], or Mach 0.95. This high-performance aircraft functions optimally at an impressive elevation of up to 50,000 feet [15,200 meters].

40,000 pounds of weapons

Boasting an impressive carrying capacity, the B-2 bomber can house up to 40,000 pounds [18,144 kilograms] of weaponry. It’s capable of hauling both conventional and nuclear weapons, making it quite the powerhouse. With two spacious internal bays, the B-2 gladly accommodates a range of war gear, from gravity bombs to precision-guided munitions, and even cruise missiles. 

One of the most stunning features of the B-2 is its impressive operational reach. Covering a hefty 6,000 nautical miles [11,112 kilometers] on internal fuel alone, it doesn’t stop there. With just one mid-air refueling, it extends its range to over 10,000 nautical miles [18,520 kilometers]. This lengthy range means it’s ready to undertake strategic bombing missions that require extended durations. 

What really sets the B-2 apart are its stealth characteristics. Besides the striking ‘flying wing’ design, the B-2 is equipped with radar-absorbing materials, making it a tough one to spot on radar. It also does an admirable job of reducing its heat signature, keeping it well hidden from infrared tracking systems. Because of its low-observable, or ‘stealth’, capabilities, the B-2 boldly ventures into enemy territory, breaching even the most advanced defenses and posing a credible threat to heavily guarded targets.

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