America is upgrading its Cold War-era B-2 bomber for the modern age of warfare. Image: Facebook

The US recently fired the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) from a B-2 stealth bomber, combining the stealthy munition with a stealthy launch platform in a potential new anti-shipping role in the Pacific.

According to a late August press release by Northrop Grumman, the B-2 successfully launched a JASSM-ER cruise missile last December, significantly enhancing the aircraft’s capability to hit targets anywhere at any time and substantially extending the cruise missile’s range.

The B-2 can carry a substantial arsenal of JASSM-ER cruise missiles, as noted by Joseph Trevithick and Thomas Newdick in The Warzone. The authors note that the B-2 can carry 16 JASSM missiles, with the JASSM-ER variant having the exact dimensions as the original version.

However, the JASSM-ER has a range of 965 kilometers compared to the 400 kilometers of the original JASSM, thanks to increased fuel capacity and an improved turbofan engine.

Apart from integrating the JASSM-ER with the B-2, Northrop Grumman said further upgrades to the aircraft are on the horizon, ensuring that the Cold War-era bomber remains a powerful conventional strike platform and viable air-based nuclear deterrent.

In particular, the upgrades will include crypto modernization and a Radar Aided Targeting System (RATS).

Crypto modernization will improve communications security for high-frequency transmissions, enabling secure communications devices in a future threat environment. The RATS upgrade, meanwhile, will allow the B-2 to use the B61 Mod 12 nuclear bomb when GPS is unavailable for nuclear strike missions.

The pairing of the B-2 stealth bomber and JASSM-ER cruise missile, combining stealth and range, could give the US a new edge over modern air defenses in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), thereby minimizing the risk to bomber crews, notes Alex Hollings in an article for Insider.

The B-2 has numerous stealth features such as a flying wing design, composite materials, special coatings, and reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, and visual signatures to penetrate sophisticated air defenses and threaten high-value targets.

These characteristics give it an edge over existing bombers at an altitude of 15,240 meters while flying at high subsonic speed and boasting an unrefueled range of 9,600 kilometers.

A B-2 bomber releasing a JASSM-ER cruise missile. Photo: Lockheed Martin

In combat aircraft, stealth does not mean invisibility but rather extending the time between detection and a weapons-quality track. Hollings notes that existing low-frequency early warning radars can detect stealth fighters such as the F-22 and F-35, although they lack the fidelity to produce a weapons-quality track.

In contrast to these stealth fighters, he says that the B-2’s flying wing design is exceedingly difficult to detect for such radars, making the aging Cold War bomber the stealthiest aircraft in service today.

In addition, the JASSM-ER could also be used to attack China’s warships in the Pacific, notes retired People’s Liberation Army–Air Force (PLA-AF) equipment specialist Fu Qianshao in the South China Morning Post.

Fu notes that the subsonic cruise missiles would be easier for China to intercept than hypersonic weapons. However, he may be viewing the scenario using China and Russia’s practice of developing powerful, supersonic air-launched anti-ship missiles to overcome fleet air defenses.

That view contrasts with the use of sea-skimming, stealthy subsonic missiles, which can potentially accomplish the same.

In Eurasian Times, defense analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra notes that targeting and tracking become very difficult at hypersonic speeds. In contrast, he notes that the JASSM-ER’s small size is an advantage since it presents a tiny target on radars.

Mitra also notes that while enemy radar may detect the B-2 bomber as it emerges over the horizon, they may not be able to detect the incoming JASSM-ER until it reaches the final 2 or 3 kilometers of its flight, which at that point is too late for interception.

Given potential anti-ship missions for the B-2, the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) variant of the JASSM-ER may be employed for anti-shipping tasks.

Naval News notes that the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) builds on the JASSM-ER’s design, featuring the same low-observable airframe and nearly the exact dimensions, but is equipped with a ship-hunting seeker.

In addition, the LRASM is armed with a 454-kilogram penetrating blast warhead and has a comparable range to the JASSM-ER.

The Naval News report mentions that the LRASM’s anti-ship seeker features an anti-jam GPS guidance system, radio frequency sensor, infrared support guidance and targeting.

These technologies allow the LRASM to detect and engage ship targets in all weather conditions, day and night, without needing external intelligence and navigation data, thereby increasing stealth by eliminating signal emissions.

This cruise missile-strategic bomber combination may have taken a page from 1960s Soviet doctrine, wherein Soviet defense planners sought to sink US carriers defended by fighters and escort warships, notes Sebastien Roblin in 1945

Roblin notes that the Soviet solution to this problem was to develop the air-launched Kh-22 cruise missile launched from the Tu-22 bomber. The missile would fly at supersonic speeds, making it impossible to intercept by US fighters or air defenses of the day.

He also notes that massed bomber formations equipped with such missiles posed a serious threat to US carriers, spurring the development of the F-14 interceptor, E-2 Hawkeye early warning planes and Ticonderoga-class cruisers.

In a modified US application of this doctrine, B2 bombers with JASSM-ER and/or LRASM missiles can potentially penetrate China’s air defenses, putting its prized carriers and other naval assets at risk.

China’s A2/AD is concentrated in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, as noted by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

A surface-to-air missile is fired from a missile launcher by the air force under the PLA Southern Theater Command during an air defense training exercise. Photo: China Military / Zhang Hengping and Yuan Hai

In terms of air defense, China employs fighter aircraft and advanced missile defenses to deny US airpower and intercept cruise missiles in those regions. It is also highly likely that its carrier battlegroups would operate under this extensive air defense umbrella for protection in a conflict scenario.

Integrating the JASSM-ER and B-2 may be an alternative to troubled US efforts to field an effective air-launched hypersonic weapon for tactical uses.

Current hypersonic weapons are suited for hitting fixed targets, but the US requires capabilities against moving targets such as warships or armored vehicle formations.

Using proven cruise missiles and stealth technology may thus be a more feasible way to fulfill this capability requirement rather than banking on immature hypersonic weapons technologies with yet unknown implications for the conduct of modern military operations and warfare.