The U.S. Air Force secretly test-fired a long-range variant of a stealthy cruise missile from a B-2 stealth bomber late last year, defense contractor Northrop Grumman revealed Thursday.
The disclosure of the December 2021 test comes amid increased tension between the United States and China. Beijing conducted military drills and ballistic missile launches near Taiwan after high-profile visits to the island by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other U.S. lawmakers.
The cruise missile—Lockheed Martin’s JASSM-ER—has about triple the 370-kilometer range of the standard JASSM, and is slated to be retargetable in flight, making it easier to hit mobile targets deep behind enemy lines. The variant has already been fitted to the B-1 bomber and F-15E strike fighter.
“That’s a real advantage to be able to conduct strikes in any direction, if you will, and at range,” said Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force B-52 pilot who directs future aerospace concepts and capabilities assessments at The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. It also “expands their ability to avoid the highest-risk threat areas while still holding the targets at risk.”
Few details of the test were revealed. The “B-2 successfully released a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range,” Northrop said in a Thursday statement. Air Force officials confirmed the test occurred, but did not immediately have additional details.
“The JASSM-ER further enhances the B-2’s ability to hit any target, anywhere,” Northrop said in the statement. “The integration of JASSM-ER enables the delivery of a low observable asset capable of traveling greater distances than its predecessor.”
The B-2 is already certified to fire the standard JASSM cruise missile, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But the -ER version adds range and, eventually, retargeting in flight.
“The JASSM-ER will eventually incorporate a weapons data link … into the missile allowing for course corrections after launch,” the think tank said. “This is a critical upgrade for road-mobile and maritime targets.”
The Lockheed Martin-made cruise missile, called JASSM-ER (pronounced jazz-um), is designed to evade missile defenses and can fly more than 500 miles. Until now, the Air Force has focused on installing the missile on its non-stealthy aircraft, including the B-1 and B-52 bombers and F-16 and F-15E fighters, according to Pentagon budget documents. This would allow those warplanes to strike targets inside enemy territory without having to fly close to those targets. But installing the weapon on the B-2, a stealth bomber already designed to fly undetected into enemy airspace, would allow it to strike targets even deeper inland.
“Having a penetrating capability with extended range—it expands the options for strikes available to our commanders,” Gunzinger said.
While it takes time to assess the results of a weapons test, he said they are usually ready much quicker than nine months after they happen.
“Frankly, I find the timing interesting, let me just put it that way,” he said.
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