Air Force tests massive B-2 sensor upgrade

New Air Force sensor technology and software will permit the stealth aircraft to evade advanced air defenses.

The Air Force is now testing new, high-tech sensors, software, electronics and other enemy radar-evading upgrades for its B-2 stealth bombers that are designed to preserve its stealth advantages and allow the aircraft to operate more effectively against increasingly capable modern air defenses.

The massive upgrade, designed to improve what’s called the bomber’s Defensive Management System, is described by Air Force developers as “the most extensive modification effort that the B-2 has attempted.”

The Defensive Management System is a technology designed to help the B-2 recognize and elude enemy air defenses, by using various antennas, receivers and display processors to detect signals or “signatures” emitting from ground-based anti-aircraft weapons, Air Force Spokesman Capt. Michael Hertzog said in a written statement.

The modernized system, called a B-2 DMS-M unit, consists of a replacement of legacy DMS subsystems so that the aircraft can be effective against the newest and most lethal enemy air defenses.

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

Upgrades consist of improved antennas with advanced digital electronic support measures, or ESMs along with software components designed to integrate new technologies with existing B-2 avionics, according to an Operational Test & Evaluation report from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The upgrade informs B-2 crews about the location of enemy air defenses so that they can avoid or maneuver around high-risk areas where the aircraft is more likely to be detected or targeted.

Air Force officials explained that while many of the details of the upgraded DMS-M unit are not available for security reasons, the improved system does allow the stealthy B-2 to operate more successfully in more high-threat, high-tech environments – referred to by Air Force strategists as highly “contested environments.”

Many experts have explained that 1980s stealth technology is known to be less effective against the best-made current and emerging air defenses – newer, more integrated systems use faster processors, digital networking and a wider-range of detection frequencies.

Upon its inception, the B-2 was engineered to go against and defeat Soviet air-defenses during the Cold War; the idea was to operate above enemy airspace, conduct attack missions and then return without the adversary even knowing the aircraft was there. This mission, designed to destroy enemy air defenses, was designed to open up a safety zone or air corridor for other, less stealthy aircraft to conduct attacks.

In order to accomplish this, B-2 stealth technology was designed to elude lower-frequency surveillance radar – which can detect the presence of an aircraft – as well as higher-frequency engagement radar, which is precise enough to allow air defenses to track, target and destroy attacking aircraft, developers explained.  

It is widely believed that modern air defenses, such as these, are now able to detect many stealth aircraft, therefore complicating the operational equation for bombers such as the B-2, senior Air Force officials have acknowledged.

These newer air defense technologies are exhibited in some of the most advanced Russian-built systems such as the S-300 and S-400. In fact, according to numerous news reports and claims in the Russian media, the Russians are now engineering a new, more effective S-500 system able to hit targets out to 125 miles.

For this reason, many senior Air Force developers have explained that in the future, stealth technology is merely one arrow in a metaphorical quiver of offensive attack capabilities used by the B-2.

Nonetheless, Hertzog explained that upgraded B-2 stealth technology will have a much-improved operating ability and strategic advantage against a vastly wider range of air defenses.

“With necessary upgrades, the B-2 can accomplish its mission regardless of location, return to base safely, and permit freedom of movement for follow-on forces, including other long range strike platforms.  Modifications such as the DMS-M are necessary to preserve this strategic advantage against 21st century threats,” Hertzog added.

The DMS-M upgrade does not in any way diminish the stealth properties of the aircraft, meaning it does not alter the contours of the fuselage or change the heat signature to a degree that it would make the bomber more susceptible to enemy radar, developers said.

Also, the B-2 is slated to fly alongside the services’ emerging B-21 Raider next-generation stealth bomber. This platform, to be ready in the mid-2020s, is said by many Air Force developers to include a new generation of stealth technologies vastly expanding the current operational ranges and abilities of existing stealth bombers. Air Force leaders have said that the B-21 will be able to hold any target in the world at risk, anytime.

Many of the details of these stealth innovations are not available for public discussion, according to Air Force and Northrop Grumman developers.

The DMS-M program achieved a key acquisition milestone last year, authorizing the program to enter what’s called the Engineering Manufacturing and Development (EMD) phase.

“Major efforts during the EMD phase include the system Critical Design Review, completion of hardware and software development efforts, Integrated Test, and Initial Operational Test and Evaluation.  Three aircraft will be modified during EMD to support the successful completion of this phase,” Hertzog explained.

The program plans on achieving 2019 Full Rate Production following this phase in 2019.

The total Research Development, Test and Evaluation funding for B-2 DMS-M is $1.837B to develop four units, Hertzog added.

The B-2 is engineered and built by Northrop Grumman; the major subcontractors on the program are BAE (receivers), Ball Aerospace and L-3 Randtron (antennas), and Lockheed Martin (display processors).

Total procurement funding for the B-2 DMS-M program is $832M to procure 16 additional units.

The Air Force currently operates 20 B-2 bombers, with the majority based at Whiteman AFB in Missouri. The B-2 can reach altitudes of 50,000 feet and carry 40,000 pounds of payload, including both conventional and nuclear weapons.

The aircraft, which entered service in the 1980s, has flown missions over Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. It can fly as many as 6,000 nautical miles without need to refuel, and in one example, the B-2 flew from Missouri all the way to Diego Garcia, an island off the coast of India before launching bombing missions over Afghanistan.

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