The B-2 Spirit bomber is an elegant machine for a war that never came. The flying wing stealth bomber, unveiled for the first time in 1988, represented the near-peak of the American Cold War defense industry. The first Spirit entered operational service in 1997, six years after the end of the Cold War, and only 21 of the bombers were ever built. Nineteen of those bombers remain in service (one was destroyed in a fire in 2008), and on August 9, Northrop Grumman announced the successful demonstration of transferring mission data from a ground station to an airborne bomber’s computer, thanks to new upgrades.
It is easy, given how futuristic the B-2’s appearance remains, to forget that the bomber was designed and built before the ubiquitous wireless data transfers of modern technology. Mission data, or information like where to fly and what targets to bomb, had to be inputted manually. B-2s are crewed by two pilots, and they fly long missions. An Air Force fact sheet lists the range as simply “intercontinental”; the Federation of American Scientists notes the range without refueling is 6,000 nautical miles (6,900 statute miles), and with air refueling the range of the B-2 can cover the entire globe.
On such a long flight, or even a normal one, there’s always a chance a human pilot manually entering data will make an error.
The new technology is an “integrated airborne mission transfer,” which “delivers an advanced capability that enables the B-2 to complete a digital, machine-to-machine transfer of new missions received in flight directly into the aircraft,” Northrop Grumman stated in a release.
Machine-to-machine transfer is a big deal, especially ensuring that it is done securely. Every B-2 bomber is capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. Together with roughly half of the venerable B-52 bombers, these planes largely constitute the bomber third of the “nuclear triad,” a distribution of nuclear launch capabilities between ground-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched missiles, and bombs dropped or missiles launched by planes. (US fighter jets are also capable of carrying some nuclear bombs, though these aren’t usually included in the discussion of the nuclear triad.)
Carrying nuclear weapons is a terrible responsibility, and films like Dr. Strangelove and Failsafe show what tragedy might happen when a nuclear bomber cannot receive new information in flight. The B-2’s manual system to input data mid-mission makes changes possible. But a human manually entering data can still make errors, even in the least stressful of contexts. A direct machine-to-machine update of mission data removes the possibility of human error from data entry, letting pilots devote their full attention to piloting and other tasks.
In addition, as Northrop Grumman told Air & Space Forces Magazine, this allows mission data to be uploaded to the bomber without interfering with any other computer processes, keeping flight and other critical systems secure. Introducing any connectivity can risk a possible exploit of that entry point by a malicious actor, though it appears the security concerns and risks are being taken seriously.
“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.
Advanced Battle Management and Joint All Domain are military concepts, heavily pursued by the Pentagon in recent years, that make it so many different tools, from fighter squadrons to bombers to ships to tanks and infantry, can be used together in a fight together. Battle management is giving tools to the commanders in charge of parts, or all these forces, to be able to send new orders as the situation changes. If soldiers fighting on one island spy the deployment of anti-air missiles, and communicate that, a commander could then use that information to redirect bombers on a course out of range of those missiles, for example. In short, the Pentagon wants to make it easier for the military to share information with itself, in a timely fashion.
“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,” said Kodama.
Taking in new mission data, directly from machine to machine, reduces the steps in which error can enter the process. It’s the difference between handing someone a written note or playing a verbal game of telephone, where whispered messages can lose or change meaning at every step of the process.
While the B-2 fleet is small, upgrades like this could help ensure the stealth bombers can remain part of the US arsenal for years to come, while the new, more numerous B-21 Raider stealth bomber fleet is built and integrated into the Air Force. There is no retirement date set for the B-2 beyond the readiness of its planned replacement. New tools ensure that, for however long that transition takes, the US will still have a handful of stealth flying wings, ready to drop conventional or nuclear weapons across continents.