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The B-2 Stealth Bomber: Now A Cruise Missile Truck? China Is Sweating

The American aerospace and defense technology company Northrop Grumman revealed that a B-2 bomber had successfully launched a long-range cruise missile during a weapons test in 2021. The defense giant released details about the AGM-158B JASSM-ER cruise missile release, which highlighted the extent of the B-2’s capability to strike any target. The B-2’s integration with the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) makes its delivery of a low observable asset capable of traveling further distances that its counterparts. While the news of this successful test launch indicates the power and sophistication of America’s long-range cruise missile arsenal, it also comes amidst rising tensions with the People’s Republic of China. Beijing recently carried out several ballistic-missile launches near Taiwan, so perhaps the disclosure of the JASSM-ER missile test is related.

The U.S. Air Force’s B-2 Spirit bomber has remained a critical asset to America’s long-range strike capabilities over the years. First debuted in the late 1990’s, the heavy bomber was designed to penetrate anti-aircraft defenses and is equipped with low observable stealth technology. 19FortyFive analyst Peter Suciu detailed several of the airframe’s capabilities in an earlier report: “(The bomber) is the only acknowledged aircraft that can carry large air-to-surface standoff weapons in a stealth configuration. In addition, the B-2 can carry up to sixteen B-61 or megaton-yield B-83 nuclear gravity bombs on the rotary launchers inside its two bomb bays. The aircraft’s avionics are even hardened versus the electromagnetic pulses generated by nuclear blasts… The B-2’s low observability was derived from a combination of reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual, and radar signatures. These signatures make it difficult for the sophisticated defensive systems to detect, track and engage the B-2.” While this airframe is set to be supplemented and ultimately replaced by the B-21 Raider, the B-2 remains the mainstay of the Air Force.

Last month, approximately 20% of the Air Force’s B-2 bomber 20 airframe fleet was detected at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Amberley airbase in Queensland. The War Zone published photographs depicting this important scene, which emphasized how the U.S. and Australia are ramping up joint efforts to improve tactical operations in the context of the Chinese threat. During a trip to Australia in July, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, said that the number of intercepts by Chinese aircraft and ships in the Pacific region has steadily increased, adding that “The message is the Chinese military, in the air and at sea, have become significantly more and noticeably more aggressive in this particular region.” The presence of B-2 bombers in the Indo-Pacific serves as a deterrent to Beijing.

Northrop Grumman’s reveal that a B-2 bomber had successfully released a long-range cruise missile during a weapons test also serves as a deterrent to China’s growing military threat. The JASSM-ER missile is one of three new components being integrated to the B-2 to further advance the platform. Unlike its predecessor that has a limited range of about 250 miles, the JASSM-ER can travel approximately 600 miles due to advancements in its engine and fuel capacity. This factor alone is extremely significant, since it would allow a B-2 bomber to strike enemy targets from further distances. The Air Force has also prioritized installing this cruise missile on its non-stealthy aircraft, including the F-15E, F-16 and B-1 bombers, according to Pentagon budget documents.

The same day Northrop Grumman revealed the launch of the JASSM-ER cruise missile, another U.S. lawmaker arrived in Taiwan in a series of trips made by U.S. dignitaries to showcase American support for the territory which China claims as its own. According to Reuters, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington pledged that Beijing would take unspecified “resolute countermeasures” to “U.S. provocations” over Taiwan. This exchange marks the latest hostile exchange between Washington and Beijing in recent months. The timing of Northrop Grumman’s cruise missile coincides with this uptick in tensions.