Price of Missouri-based world’s costliest bomber is going up

The B-2 stealth bomber is getting its most expensive upgrade to date, $2.7 billion to improve the detection systems on a fleet of 20 jets.
The B-2 stealth bomber is getting its most expensive upgrade to date, $2.7 billion to improve the detection systems on a fleet of 20 jets. The Associated Press

History’s priciest airplane is getting costlier.

The U.S. Air Force’s 20 Missouri-based B-2 stealth bombers will get $2.7 billion in upgrades over the next several years.

Northrop Grumman Corp.’s contract for the work marks the “most extensive” improvements to the jets since their delivery to the Air Force almost 24 years ago for about $2.1 billion per plane. The fleet is based at Whiteman Air Force Base, about 60 miles east of Kansas City.

Now the Pentagon will spend about $134 million per plane to develop and install new antennas, receivers and displays so bomber crews can better spot when they might be spotted.

A B-2 Spirit bomber remains the most difficult aircraft in the U.S. arsenal for potential enemies to detect. Its bat-wing shape, its radar-baffling skin, its relatively quiet engines and the fastidious routes it takes to and from a target have spared the plane from enemy fire over two decades of bombing runs to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Yet during those years, the ongoing cat-and-mouse technology of aircraft detection has only grown more sophisticated. For instance, the Russians developed the S-400 Triumf air defense system that either can, or soon could, find and destroy even a plane as stealthy as the B-2.

The bomber “was never meant to be completely invisible,” said Thomas Keaney, a former B-52 pilot and the associate director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

That means, he said, the planes’ two-person crews need to know when a radar signal has pinged the aircraft. What happens next is less clear. The plane is not particularly fast — it travels at well below the speed of sound. It can’t bob and weave through the sky the way more agile fighter jets can.

Still, knowing that an enemy might see the plane could prompt a change in routes to evade further detection or let the crew signal other aircraft to send out radar-jamming signals, Keaney said. Most recently, a pair of B-2 bombers flew from Whiteman in mid-January to strike Islamic State camps in the Libyan desert.

He said that “$2 billion is a big number” but that the B-2 is the only stealth, long-ranger bomber at the Pentagon’s disposal. A next-generation B-3 bomber is in development but likely won’t be ready for another dozen years or more.

“You’ve got to keep improving the planes that you have,” he said.

The new upgrade, first reported by Inside Defense last week, will overhaul what the Air Force calls the planes’ “defensive management system.”

“This systems picks up where mission planning ends by integrating a suite of antennas, receivers, and displays that provide real-time situational awareness to aircrew,” the Air Force said in a statement. “The DMS-Modernization program addresses shortcomings within the current DMS system.”

Air Force spokesman Capt. Michael Hertzog said the upgrade program “will have no effect on basing” the planes at Whiteman. It could take two years before Northrop Grumman and three subcontractors fully develop the new technology and begin production. It’s unclear how long it will take to swap the improved systems into the bombers.

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon