Crew chiefs from the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and 131st Bomb Wing perform a phase inspection on a B-2 Spirit at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. (Senior Airman Nick Wilson / Air Force)
The Air Force’s newest and most advanced bomber is also its least mission-ready. The B-2 Spirit’s 20-bomber fleet had a 51.3 percent mission capable rate in fiscal 2012, below the B-1B Lancer’s 56.8 percent and the aging B-52’s 78.3 percent, according to a report released recently by the service.
Northrop Grumman, the main contractor on the stealth bomber, is already planning ways to improve the B-2’s communications and targeting systems, and make changes to the aircraft’s maintenance schedule to give increased access to the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
The contractor is looking to change the depot maintenance of the bomber from a complete overhaul once every seven years to a shorter tune-up every five years and an overhaul every 10, which will give the Air Force access to one more bomber at any given time and save the service $310 million over 10 years, said Dave Mazur, Northrop’s vice president and B-2 program manager.
Depot maintenance takes approximately 13 months at a Northrop facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. It includes a complete restoration of the airframe, inspections and service of the aircraft’s mechanical and electrical systems, according to the contractor.
The contractor is planning to demonstrate the changes to the Air Force in fiscal 2014, with possible adoption coming two years later.
Over the next few years, the B-2 is also expected to get several technological upgrades to improve its communications with air operations centers, upgrading processors on the plane’s computer systems and even possible changes to the weapons systems of the bomber.
Currently, the bomber’s two weapons bays can carry either a rotary launcher or a “smart” bomb rack. Northrop is working toward upgrading the B-2’s integrating processing unit to give it the ability to carry one of each so pilots and mission planners will have more flexibility, Mazur said.
“We are building a new B-2 from the inside out,” he said.
Contractors and the Air Force are also working to better integrate the new 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator with current testing to get the bunker bombs accurate “within feet,” Mazur said.
Other upgrades include new systems to interface with the Air Force’s extremely high frequency satellite communications. The new software, which began with the awarding of a $108 million contract last fall, includes an integrated processing unit, high-capacity disk drive and a fiber- optic network to communicate with new satellites and in a contested environment, Mazur said.
Production on this system is scheduled to begin in July at Whiteman, with three B-2s already upgraded during system development, Mazur said.