Northrop Grumman, Air Force Plan Future of B-2 Fleet as Spirit Turns 30

The Air Force and Northrop Grumman commemorated the B-2's 30th birthday on Aug. 20 in Palmdale, Calif. Staff photo by Brian Everstine.

PALMDALE, Calif.—The Air Force and Northrop Grumman officially marked the 30th birthday of the B-2 on Aug. 20, celebrating a bomber that has revolutionized US nuclear deterrence at a time when they are overhauling the aircraft’s defensive systems and laying the groundwork for its successor.

The B-2 will hold the line as the Air Force’s low-observable bomber until Northrop’s B-21 bomber becomes available.

“We have deterred our adversaries,” Janis Pamiljans, the president of Northrop’s aerospace systems sector, said during a ceremony here. “We know this business, we know how to bring stealth and (low observable technology).”

In July 1989, the first B-2 rolled out onto the same Palmdale flight line where the ceremony was held. Since then, it has flown in major US conflicts from Kosovo to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, while evolving with new technology, weapons carriages, and maintenance techniques.

“Sustainment and modernization remain an important aspect of the B-2,” Eighth Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. James Dawkins said during the ceremony. “We will continue to engage with Northrop Grumman to have this airplane in the future.”

The aircraft currently has a mission capable rate of about 61 percent—a high-water mark for a fleet that, at any given time, has 10 percent of its overall airframes in depot maintenance in Palmdale, according to Northrop.

Northrop’s main focus for the B-2 fleet is evolving its programmed depot maintenance and coupling that in-depth, yearlong sustainment work with new platform upgrades. For example, one B-2—dubbed the “Spirit of Pennsylvania”—will be the first Spirit outfitted with the Defensive Management System while it is currently undergoing regular maintenance in Palmdale. DMS is the aircraft’s first major modernization in the past 30 years, Pamiljans said.

The upgrade includes a digital system to detect threats based on their electronic signatures, new antennas, modern display units that find enemy threat radars, and associated software components aimed at improving B-2 survivability, according to the Pentagon’s Department of Operational Test and Evaluation. Dawkins said the program is fully funded and that the Air Force is monitoring its overall progress.

Inside Defense reported in June the service was rebaselining the $3 billion DMS effort as it tries to overhaul its software development approach. The program’s delivery is expected to slip by six to eight months because Northrop is shifting to agile development.

Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told Congress in March that the service is spending $1.5 billion within five years to make sure the bomber “can continue to counter sophisticated air defense networks.” The Air Force has added capabilities since the program initially began, making it “better because of the criticality of the platform,” Roper said.

Richard Sullivan, the vice president and B-2 program manager at Northrop Grumman, said DMS involves the most software and hardware changes since the program went through its major engineering development phase.

Northrop is currently contracted to install DMS on three airplanes, but Sullivan said there isn’t a set date by which the company needs to reach initial operational capability because a full production contract is still in the works.

The Spirit of Pennsylvania will return to the Air Force with the DMS capability in three weeks. The plane is the next test aircraft for Edwards AFB, Calif., where it will fly for nine years.

Northrop is working to speed up heavy maintenance by shaving days off certain processes that can amount to larger time and cost savings. The company accelerated its low-observable repairs, during which the B-2’s stealth coating is completely repainted. Northrop removes parts from each aircraft that comes in for evaluation and repair, and some components are “cannibalized” for other aircraft that are preparing to leave the depot so the planes can move through faster.

Two B-2s are undergoing PDM in the Palmdale facility at any given time, staggered so one comes and leaves every six months. Northrop wants to keep this schedule running on time, because just two B-2s is still 10 percent of the overall B-2 fleet.

Spending 10 years maintaining 20 aircraft isn’t fast enough for the Air Force, Sullivan said.

While the B-2 is celebrating its 30th anniversary, the fleet still has a lot of life left. On average, each aircraft has about 6,000 to 7,000 remaining flight hours, well short of the overall projected 30,000-hour lifespan.

Still, the Air Force plans to retire the fleet starting in the late 2020s as it brings on the next-generation B-21. The Air Force expects some overlap in the operational life of the B-2 and B-21 during a “transition phase,” Dawkins said, but the service has no plans to keep the B-2 around past the 2030s.