Automated material application will drastically cut number of man-hours needed to service low-observable bomber

Northrop Grumman is hoping to cut substantially the number of maintenance man hours needed to support the B-2 Spirit bomber through the automated application of new low-observable (LO) material. The move is part of wider improvements being made to the aircraft's communications, sensor and weapons capability.

Supporting the B-2's LO design demands over 40 maintenance man hours for every hour of flight, which Northrop Grumman wants to reduce by up to 75%. "We've been working hard for years to come up with an alternative high-frequency material (AHFM) and a robotic application," says Jeff Cliver, Northrop Grumman manager business development, long-range strike.

B-2 maintainers have to fill in gaps between access panels and the airframe by hand, and then cover them with around 900m (3,000ft) of tape. The manufacturer expects, through a combination of AHFM coating and the use of random fibre caulk, to be able to remove approximately 670m of tape, and cut the time required to open and close a hatch, including sealing and curing, from 36h to 28min. In addition, the new filler is expected to retain its shape when a panel is removed.

Work is due to begin next year on upgrading B-2 communications, starting with the addition of ultra high-frequency satellite communications (satcom) for secure beyond line of sight communications. This will be followed around 2005 by Link 16 and a new centre display for inflight reprogramming of the aircraft's route, the threats faced or retargeting, followed by the addition of extremely high-frequency satcom from 2007.

The planned installation of a new smart bomb rack will enable weapons to be automatically updated with targeting information contained in satcom UHF messages. The new rack will support the addition of the 230kg (500lb) member of Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition family in 2004, up to 80 of which could be carried, and eventually up to 216 of the 115kg Small Diameter Bomb. The B-2 can carry 16 900kg JDAMs and, soon, up to eight laser-guided 2,300kg EGBU-24 bombs.

Also in the pipeline is the upgrade or replacement of the aircraft's Raytheon APG-181 radar by 2007. The Ku-band radar will soon have to share the bandwidth with commercial users, unless it is modified or replaced.

Source: Flight International