The USA’s iconic “flying wing” stealth bomber has a new long-range strike capability.

The nuclear-capable Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit strategic bomber successfully tested air-launching an extended range variant of the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), Northrop said on 25 August.

The US Air Force (USAF) secretly conducted the test in December 2021, according to defence aerospace manufacturer Northrop, which is currently under contract to design and build two major USAF strategic deterrent programmes for the coming decades: the B-21 bomber and Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missile system.

B-2 spirit

Source: US Air Force

The B-2 stealth bomber represents one leg of the USA’s so-called nuclear triad of bombers, submarines and land-based missile silos capable of delivering nuclear payloads around the world at a moment’s notice

The B-2s, which the B-21 will someday replace, features smooth contours and a jaggedly-shaped tail section that dramatically reduce the aicraft’s radar signature, giving it the ability to slip through air defences, deep into enemy territory.

“The unrivalled capabilities of the B-2 make it the only long range, penetrating stealth bomber currently in the US arsenal,” says Shaugnessy Reynolds, B-2 programme manager for Northrop.

The B-2 was already certified to carry the standard model of the low-observable JASSM cruise missile, along with the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber, the Boeing F-15 Strike Eagle, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed F-16 Falcon.

However, the December test now gives the B-2 the ability to carry JASSM-Extended Range (ER) variant, which boasts a flight radius of 540nm (1,000km) compared to the standard JASSM’s 200nm, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It represents a substantial boost to the B-2’s ability to strike targets from great distances away, a concept known as stand-off.

A still-under-development version of the missile with even greater stand-off capability, known as the JASSM-Extreme Range (XR), will offer a range of up to 972nm.

Northrop notes that the JASSM-ER is one of three new capabilities being integrated in the B-2 as part of ongoing modernisation efforts. The aircraft’s encrypted communication systems are being upgraded and it is being outfitted with the Radar Aided Targeting System (RATS), which will complete the latest round of B-2 nuclear modernisation efforts.

The integration of RATS, Northrop says, allows the B-2 to fully employ the B-61 mod 12 nuclear bomb. The company adds that RATS, which is not reliant on the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS), is the key element of the nuclear modernisation because GPS may not be available during a bomber task force mission.

The constellation of GPS satellites are seen as vulnerable to Russian and Chinese satellite-destroying weapons in a potential future conflict, leading the USAF to seek alternatives to GPS-guided munitions that do not require an aircraft or ground team nearby to laser-designate a target.

Shaugnessy says that Northrop remains “committed to continued modernisation… to keep the B-2 Spirit mission ready”.