Northrop accelerating B-2 bomber modernization and preparing for Long Range Strike Bomber work

Despite Northrop being gagged from discussing the Long Range Strike-Bomber pending the verdict of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) bid protest review there is some information. Northrop has hinted that if its plan prevails final assembly will occupy the same Building 401 hangar at Palmdale’s Plant 42 site used for the construction of the B-2 stealth bomber in the 1980s and 1990s. Although only 21 B-2s were built, the east side of Building 401 supported up to 11 bombers on the line during peak production.

In 2014, Northrop received a $10 billion contract to modernize and sustain the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber for a decade. In 2014, Northrop Grumman completed a USAF review of a new software package for the fleet. The upgrade, known as the USAF’s ‘Flexible Strike Phase 1’ programme, was created to streamline weapons management software on the aircraft, according to Northrop Grumman. The aircraft previously had several standalone software programmes that each managed a specific mission.

The Flexible Strike programme is the first B-2 modernisation effort to take advantage of the new communications infrastructure Northrop Grumman created for the first increment of the B-2 EHF satellite communications programme. That infrastructure included faster processors, a fibre optic network, and increased onboard data storage.

With concerns about the size and availability of the B-2 bomber fleet, Northrop is meanwhile speeding up maintenance on the 1980s-era aircraft. The company sought to reduce the time that it takes to overhaul each of the 20 bombers in the Air Force’s fleet from 560 days down to one year.

Advancements in the stealth coatings — from the initial days of painting the B-2 by hand to today’s robot-based application — are helping to keep more B-2s in operation. Previously the coatings had to be replaced every seven years to maintain their low radar cross section, but the Air Force has agreed to extend that to every nine years.

Along with a faster maintenance schedule, the B-2 has seen a number of upgrades to its radar system, adding Link 16 communications and new weapons, including the ability to carry two Boeing-made Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs. Future enhancements are planned as well. Engineers are working to integrate the B-61 tactical nuclear bomb and Northrop is in the acquisition planning phase of adding protections for nuclear missions via the use of Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications.

B2 Bomber

Long Range Strike Bomber

The Air Force plans to buy up to 100 LRS-Bs to replace B-52s and B-1s, which are slated to retire in the mid-2040s. Initial operating capability is expected in the mid-2020s, with nuclear certification planned two years after service entry. The program is targeting a cost of around $550 million per aircraft; a basic enabler of this price point will be a mature production system. Together with Sites 3 and 4, the expanded footprint of Northrop’s production sites at Plant 42 will grow to a total of around 3 million square feet with the addition of Sites 7 and 8.

Northrop concept for Long Range Strike Bomber

SOURCES – Janes, Biz Journal, Aviation Week