The B-2 program at Wright-Patterson AFB (WPAFB), Ohio is seeking secure, in-flight mission planning and communications upgrades for the 20 stealth bombers in the U.S. Air Force fleet.

Last month, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) held a virtual Bomber Industry Day to discuss the programs for the Boeing [BA] B-52 and B-1 bombers and the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-2 stealth bomber.

The Air Force’s 20 B-2s are to remain in service until at least 2030 when the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber begins fielding.

According to an industry day Question and Answer sheet, real-time cyber protection for the 20 B-2s “would fall to mission planning and communications upgrades that are seeking secure solutions to be able to receive real-time, on-board, active in-flight communications and mission planning updates for the B-2.”

“Communications modifications fall under the Advanced Programs Branch at WPAFB and mission planning falls under the Air Vehicle and Systems Management (AVSM) Branch at Tinker AFB,” per the Q&A sheet. “B-2 is working to ensure that anything that touches COMMs [communications], especially in-flight updates, does have cyber protection. Cyber is always evolving and we look for advance novel solutions to counter the ever-advancing cyber threats so any cyber detection, AI [artificial intelligence] algorithms, are welcome.”

A Bomber Industry Day briefing by Air Force Col. Cory Brown, the B-2 program manager, said that the program is executing “the most aggressive sustainment and modernization strategy in B-2’s history” and that the program is “delivering strongest mission capable rates for Low Density, High Demand (LD/HD) fleet due to full-court press across Low-Observable Signature and Supportability Modifications (LOSSM), Low-Observable maintenance, and supply chain.”

“B-2 must remain viable, sustainable and affordable to ensure that the U.S. maintains its long range, penetrating bomber capabilities until the B-21 is fielded,” per one of Brown’s slides.

In a report last November on U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps’ aircraft mission capable rates, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) pointed to sustainment challenges for the B-2. In 2019, the B-2’s mission capable rate was 60.47 percent. According to Brown’s presentation for the Bomber Industry Day, the B-2’s MC rate for fiscal 2021 was “on track.”

AFLCMC had not responded by press time on Sept. 29 to a question on the B-2’s current MC and full mission capable (FMC) rates.

“According to [B-2] program office officials, because of the low number of aircraft in the B-2 fleet, there is less demand for suppliers to build parts, resulting in decreased parts availability,” per the GAO report. “This parts shortage routinely leads to cannibalization—that is, taking a part from one aircraft and using it on another—of aircraft in depot. While this process fixes an immediate need, it is also inefficient. The B-2 program office has been working with the Air Force’s Supply Chain Management Wing to address this issue. Supply chain improvement efforts include redesigning obsolete hardware to ensure that aging parts are procurable and reparable for the future.”

Brown’s briefing pointed to challenges for B-2 sustainment, including small, aging fleet dynamics; parts non-availability; increased Mission Impaired Capability Awaiting Parts (MICAPS) and cannibalization rates; and low-observable challenges.

The briefing also suggested that the program is looking into solutions including additive manufacturing and 3D printing.

Last September, AFLCMC said that the B-2 program office was undertaking a Next Gen Zonal Radar Program to provide hand held devices this year for maintainers so that they are able to improve their evaluation of “the low observable (LO) nature of materials on the aircraft, which is vital to ensuring the plane’s stealth capabilities.”

“The program office also led a project to redesign a panel on the nose of the B-2 that improved the panel’s LO signature and saved the government more than $40 million,” AFLCMC said. In addition, the B-2 program “is updating the monitors on the aircraft that allow pilots to plan missions,” per AFLCMC. “The request for proposal was released to Northrop Grumman on Aug. 31, and the goal is to retrofit the fleet no later than 2026.”

The Q&A sheet for the Bomber Industry Day last month noted the difficulty that companies may face in seeking to get Northrop Grumman’s approval for involvement in B-2 sustainment.

“We understand it is hard to get work with the incumbent contractor and we understand these challenges,” according to the Q&A sheet. “There are no issues with sending the team a quick note/heads up that you plan to meet with the incumbent contractor. When it relates to things that are going to touch the plane’s Operational Flight Profile (OFP), there is just no way to get around it. You need to engage with the incumbent contractor to see how you may be able to be a subcontractor in support of that relationship. That does not mean you have to completely keep the government out of that conversation though. We have been messaging the incumbent for some time about how the environment is changing and the way in which they have executed programs in the B-2 in the past.”

“They need to adapt to show flexibility, adaptability, affordability, and effectiveness for the remaining lifecycle of the B-2,” the Q&A sheet said. “Senior leadership is on board with that, and changes have been made. While not perfect, it is a reasonable expectation that any incumbent contractor should be seeking and willing to listen and take advantage of third-party industry support in sustainment for the B-2.”