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Aug 21, 2023

United States Air Force

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The United States fleet of venerable B-2 "Spirit" nuclear-capable "stealth" bombers are to receive a significant upgrade to futureproof them for the foreseeable future. Designed and built at the end of the Cold War, these graceful but deadly aircraft are woefully outdated in some respects to modern aircraft. The major handicap they possess is their lack of wireless communication, which a new upgrade is designed to cure.

To this end, Northrop Grumman and The U.S. Air Force (USAF) have just completed a test that enables wireless data transfer between ground-based assets and the B-2 in flight. This function is vital in modern combat to allow mission data to be updated on the hop without being entered manually, potentially introducing unnecessary human error. This is especially important for a craft like the B-2, as its advertised 6,000 nautical-mile (11,112 km) range and mid-air refueling ability can see the aircraft aloft for many hours. Battles can change in moments, so adapting swiftly is critical to combat the effectiveness of any asset.

To tackle this, Northrop Grumman has developed a new technology called "integrated airborne mission transfer." This technology allows the B-2 aircraft to receive new missions in flight and complete a digital, machine-to-machine transfer directly into the aircraft. Transferring data between machines is crucial, especially when it comes to ensuring that the process is secure. The B-2 can carry both conventional and nuclear weapons, and when combined with approximately half of the B-52 bombers, they make up the bomber division of the "nuclear triad." This triad is a system for distributing nuclear launch capabilities between ground-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched missiles, and bombs dropped or missiles launched by planes.

Transporting nuclear weapons is an immense responsibility, and the B-2's manual system for inputting mid-mission data is obsolete. Under high-stress situations, like, say, a potential nuclear strike, human error is an ever-present risk. A machine-to-machine update of mission data eliminates this risk, allowing pilots to focus entirely on their piloting duties and other responsibilities.

According to Northrop Grumman's statement to Air & Space Forces Magazine, uploading mission data to the bomber does not disrupt other computer processes, ensuring the safety of flight operations and other critical systems. However, introducing any connectivity, they point out, introduces a new problem like exposure to potential cyber-attacks. Despite this, knowing that security risks are being taken seriously is reassuring.

“We are providing the B-2 with the capabilities to communicate and operate in advanced battle management systems and the joint all-domain command and control environment, keeping B-2 ahead of evolving threats,” said Nikki Kodama, vice president and B-2 program manager, Northrop Grumman in a release.

“The integration of this digital software with our weapon system will further enhance the connectivity and survivability in highly contested environments as part of our ongoing modernization effort,” added Kodama.

Although the B-2 fleet is small (currently 19 airframes), upgrades such as these could guarantee that the stealth bombers are included in the U.S. arsenal for many years, even with the new B-21 "Raider" on the way. There is no specific retirement date for the B-2, as it will be retired only when its planned replacement is ready. But, with these new tools, the U.S. will have a few stealth-flying wings prepared to deliver conventional or nuclear weapons across continents for as long as the transition takes.