US B-2 Bomber Fires ‘Cutting Edge’ Stealthy Cruise Missile Amid China, Russia Tensions; Enhanced Role On Cards For Bombers

The US has reportedly test-fired a ‘stealthy’ cruise missile from its B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, which forms the backbone of its Bomber fleet, while the next-generation  B-21 Raider remains under development.

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Defense giant Northrop Grumman revealed on August 25, 2022, that the US Air Force tested the AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) stealthy cruise missile from a B-2 stealth bomber in December 2021.

The missile is a long-range version of the AGM-158 JASSM, and the US Air Force’s B-1 bomber and F-15E fighter have already been outfitted with the variant.

The announcement comes against escalating tensions with China in the Indo-Pacific. China, for one, wields long-range missiles that put American military assets in the Pacific in PLA’s firing range.

It also possesses operational hypersonic missiles that can travel worldwide without being intercepted by American Air Defenses.

Firing a cutting-edge, stealthy cruise missile could indicate an enhanced role for the B-2 bombers. While the B-21 could be expected to join service in the next couple of years, the B-2 is being modernized and upgraded, which means that the Spirits will continue to fly alongside the Raider in the long haul.

According to the statement released by Northop Grumman, three new cutting-edge capabilities are being added to the B-2 to further modernize the platform, with the JASSM-ER being one of them.

A Radar Aided Targeting System and crypto-modernization are also being integrated into the B-2 fleet, which is equipped to deliver both conventional and nuclear munitions.

Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit - Wikipedia
Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit – Wikipedia

As for the missile fired, the JASSM-ER cruise missile from Lockheed Martin has a range that is roughly three times as long as the normal JASSM’s 370 kilometers, and it is planned to be re-targetable in flight, making it simpler to hit moving targets far beyond enemy lines, Defense One reported.

“The JASSM-ER further enhances the B-2’s ability to hit any target, anywhere. The integration of JASSM-ER enables the delivery of a low observable asset capable of traveling greater distances than its predecessor.” Northrop said in the statement.

Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-ER

Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-ER is an autonomous, long-range, air-to-ground, and precision standoff missile designed to evade missile defenses and can fly more than 500 miles. It has excellent capability and accuracy in eliminating both stationary and mobile targets.

The JASSM-ER was initially only available for the B-1B bomber when it entered service in 2014. Other platforms have now been able to use it, such as the F-15E Strike Eagle, which acquired full operational capability with the new missile in 2018. The Strike Eagle, for one, is considered USAF’s best dogfighter.

Three AGM-158B derivatives and sub-variants are already under development to increase the operational flexibility and range of the JASSM-ER. This includes the AGM-158D, a planned variant with a two-way data link to enable retargeting, according to the USAF Budget request for FY2023.

AGM-158 JASSM (via twitter)

The AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), another AGM-158B derivative, does not appear to be integrated into any current plans for the B-2. However, it is worth noting that anti-ship missiles are gaining ground as the significant flashpoint are spread in the oceans. For instance, it is believed that any military confrontation between the US and China will be over the seas.

Even though the B-21 is currently getting ready for its first flight, which is scheduled for next year, the B-2 remains a crucial instrument for the US military for carrying out highly long-range nuclear and conventional strikes in restricted areas. The Spirit could thus come in handy against America’s three major adversaries- China, Russia, and North Korea.

It is pertinent to note that the B-2 Bomber is already a stealth aircraft that can fly close to the enemy’s borders or even inside its territories without easily being intercepted by its radars. A stealth bomber armed with a stealth cruise missile might be able to strike assets deep inside the enemy territory.

File Image: B-2 Bomber

Stealth On Stealth Combination

Despite having a relatively stealthy design, the B-2s are still vulnerable to attacks from evolving opponent-integrated air defense networks, particularly from potential near-peer enemies. These networks are also becoming more common. For instance, China has a very sophisticated system of Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), as acknowledged by USAF Pacific Commander General Kenneth Wilsbach in March this year.

This is where the stealthy cruise missiles come in. With their long-range and stealth capabilities, the missiles could be fired from a range where air defenses do not intercept the strategic bomber.

Miguel Miranda, a Philippines-based military analyst, said, “It’s always helpful to acknowledge the Big 4 adversaries of the USA in this era we live in. These are China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

All these countries have mature networked air defenses and some level of anti-access weaponry; the Chinese probably have the most comprehensive arsenal today. The JASSM and the JASSM-ER are badly needed when up against these threats.”

“Regarding the B-2 Spirit and its role in launching the JASSM-ER, it’s best to remember these are just tests conducted by Northrop Grumman and the US Air Force. A wide range of aircraft can carry the munition itself,” he added.

It is also pertinent to note that the JASSM-ER is not only a long-range cruise missile but also hard to intercept due to its stealth feature. For a while now, the US has had a capability gap concerning China and Russia as these two have operational hypersonic missiles, unlike the United States, which is still some time away from fielding.

EurAsian Times reached out to Abhijit Iyer Mitra, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and a military expert, to understand if the USAF was trying to level up against adversaries that possess hypersonic weapons.

He states, “Hypersonic missiles may be swift but locking on and targeting becomes very difficult at that speed. This principle was proven when several western ships managed to jam Russian supersonic missiles because of the kind of weak electronic shielding that they may have.

The same could be possible with hypersonic missiles because the reaction time of the missile would be highly suspected once it emerges over the horizon, how quickly it acquires the target, etc.

The JASSM-ER is a subsonic (relatively slower) stealth missile, meaning the entire missile flight path remains concealed from the enemy radars. So, even when it emerges over the horizon, its small size becomes an advantage.

When B-2 emerges over the horizon, it will become visible due to its size — stealth or no stealth. However, the missile would not become visible because it will still be a tiny target when it emerges over the radar. It will leave very little reaction time as the radar won’t be able to detect it till the final 2-3 kilometers, when it would be too late.

That’s the main thing about stealth on stealth. So, the enemy defenses might end up tracking the plane, but it is possible that they don’t know where the missile is.”

Since the Air Force removed the traditional AGM-86C and D versions of the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which were carried by the B-52H, the JASSM-significance ER has only increased.

In addition, the B-2’s standoff strike capabilities will likely become more crucial over time. For its part, the JASSM-ER could be expected to make it to B-21’s weaponry.