Spirits in the Sky

B-2A Spirit

The United States Air Force (USAF) will commence production of the first phase of the Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirit strategic bomber Flexible Strike programme in 2017, the USAF has told armadainternational.com.

The Flexible Strike programme, for which Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor, commenced in 2014 with a $205.1 million contract award to the company to this end, a spokesperson for the USAF continued. The programme is “is the foundation for future weapon capability upgrades (on the aircraft), including digital nuclear weapons.”

These digital nuclear weapons include the B-61 Mod.12 freefall nuclear bomb with yields of 0.3, five, ten and 50 kilotons/kt (one kiloton equals 1000 tons of conventional explosive) according to open sources. These reports continue that the B-61 Mod.12 employs an Inertial Navigation System (INS) to enhance precision guidance. Boeing is producing the INS tail kit equipping the weapon which could, reports add, begin to enter service in 2017.

B61 training unit intended for ground crew. It accurately replicates the shape and size of a “live” B61 (together with its safety/arming mechanisms) but contains only inert materials.

The other digital nuclear weapon, so called because of their reliance of computer processing for guidance and control, for the B-2A as a result of the Flexible Strike programme is the forthcoming Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon. The LRSO is the replacement for the USAF’s current Boeing AGM-86B ALCM (Air-Launched Cruise Missile) air-to-surface weapons which have a reported variable yield of between five kilotons and 150kt. Open sources say that the USAF plans to replace the AGM-86B with circa 1000 LRSOs which will likely enter service in circa 2026.

AGM-86B missile
Up to 20 AGM-86B missiles could be loaded onto one B-52 bomber.

In July 2016, the US Department of Defence (DOD) released a request for proposals for the LRSO’s technology maturation and risk reduction phase, it has not been disclosed as to when the DOD is expected to evaluate proposals from industry, but reports continue that once this process is complete, the DOD will select two prime contractors who will execute a 54-month long effort to develop a preliminary LRSO design before the selection of a single supplier to provide the weapon.

Reports continue that the LRSO will carry the modified W80-4 warhead, which is an enhancement of the existing W-80 warhead (used by the AGM-86B) performed by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico which will modernise the warhead’s non-nuclear components and subsystems for use with the LRSO. Meanwhile, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California modernising the warhead’s physics package, Sandia confirmed.

Weapon designers at Sandia National Laboratory hold a W80-4 warhead 3D mockup. The warheads in the background are W84 (left) and W80-1.

The USAF spokesperson continued that the Flexible Strike programme will allow the B-2A to carry up to 16 B-61 Mod.12 weapons, with the modifications to the B-2A incumbent in this programme commencing for the USAF’s 20-strong fleet of aircraft in 2017 and concluding in circa 2020. However, they added that: “specific fielding dates for the final integration of the B-61 Mod.12 remain classified.” Moreover, the USAF told armadainternational.com that the total number of LRSOs which the B-2A is expected to accommodate remains classified.