Say you own a 20-year-old car and intend to drive it beyond the year 2050. It will need some fixing.
A challenge similar to that continually faces Whiteman Air Force Base, home to the B-2 stealth bomber. Many aircraft parts made in the 1980s, when the first of 21 B-2s rolled out of a Northrop Grumman Corp. hangar, are as obsolete today as the floppy disk.
Yet the plan is to keep those bat-winged bombers flying, and eluding the latest in radar technology, until 2058.
The Pentagon is moving forward with a $2 billion, 10-year effort to modernize the fleet’s defensive capabilities. Digital equipment will replace analog, antennas will be upgraded, communication systems and pilot displays will be enhanced — all needed to address “emerging and proliferating 21st century ground and airborne threats,” according to an Air Force report last year to Congress.
Col. Rob Spalding of Whiteman’s 509th Bomb Wing called the coming enhancements “the biggest and most complex update of the B-2 in its history.”
Washington’s commitment to the B-2 is a no-brainer, experts say, given the plane’s lethal legacy. It has been involved in every combat action since NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo War.
“The B-2 is a door opener,” said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank on weapons systems. “It has the unique ability to fly unescorted into hostile airspace and blow up a lot of stuff — without us first having to take out the other guy’s air defenses.”
Maintaining the fleet — now down to 20, following the wreck of a B-2 flying out of a Guam air base into heavy rain in 2008 — is job one at Missouri’s Whiteman. Scheduled overhauls happen every seven years, and replacement parts are increasingly difficult to find, Spalding said.
In some instances, technicians at the base have devised their own remedies to keep the bomber current with changing technologies.
Case in point: Avionics Plug and Play, or AP2.
It is an email and communications system that is separate from the aircraft’s operational backbone. This is a huge cost-saver, Spalding said, because any fiddling with the bomber’s core functions requires years of research and testing.
AP2 allows commanders on the ground to shoot coordinates and revised flight plans to the B-2’s two-person crew. Rather than relying on a laptop that once swiveled on a stand between the pilot seats, the new system puts computer screens at the shoulder of each flyer. And it can be easily upgraded as more sophisticated technologies emerge, said Spalding, operations group commander for the 509th.
“We designed it ourselves,” he said. “Necessity is the mother of invention. We saw the need and went out and did it.”
Last month, Northrup Grumman awarded a contract to BAE Systems to replace 30-year-od analogue electronics with digital support systems on all B-2s. The size of the contract was not disclosed, and a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman said sensitive specifics about the planned upgrades would not be divulged.
A BAE executive said in a press release the new electronics will help give the fleet “exceptional situational awareness to reach its targets through highly developed, increasingly sophisticated enemy defenses.”
It’s not such a reach to imagine keeping the B-2s up to date and operational for decades to come, said expert Pike: “We did it with the B-52.”
Many of those bigger bombers were in active service before their crews were born.
“We’re talking about a low-mileage aircraft,” he said, with the typical B-2 accumulating fewer than 5,000 flying hours since birth.
“The notion of the thing getting worn out due to airframe stress, you don’t really need to worry about.”
Then again, Lockheed’s F-117 — a stealth fighter on flight lines since the early 1980s — was phased out of active service by the Air Force beginning in 2007. The fighter’s capabilities were questioned when one was spotted and shot down during the Kosovo conflict, its radar signature compromised with bomb bay doors opened.
The F-117 airframe required substantial maintenance and eventually was superseded by streamlined shapes designed by computers.
Spalding said no B-2s were currently in forward locations such as Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean atoll from which bombers launched attacks on enemy targets in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Air Force has $560 million in its present five-year spending plan for modernizing the B-2’s defense-management system, according to InsideDefense.com.
The bomber currently is the only aircraft capable of carrying a super-bunker buster in development — the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP. The Pentagon considers the MOP crucial to defense capabilities against hardened, deeply buried targets.
Few in Washington appear inclined to neglect “The Plane That Would Bomb Iran,” as The Atlantic Monthly once called the B-2. Believed to have significantly enhanced their air defenses and radar systems in recent years, Iranian officials last month crowed of successfully identifying and repelling mock fighter jets during four days of war games.