The most intimidating aircraft in the world is 25 years old this week and is about to become even more advanced.
The nation’s fleet of B-2 stealth bombers, the pride of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, is poised to get nearly $10 billion in upgrades over the next several years to ensure it remains the most fearsome attack platform in the U.S arsenal.
The bat-winged aircraft first took to the sky on July 17, 1989. Its maker, Northrop Grumman Corp., is throwing a party for it on Thursday in Palmdale, Calif.
At Whiteman, about 70 miles southeast of Kansas City, the pilots and the people who maintain the B-2 are looking forward to upgrades to the aircraft’s communications, avionics and other systems— even as the Air Force contemplates buying a whole new next-generation bomber.
If a newer, faster and possibly pilotless bomber comes into service in the mid-2020s, experts say the B-2 still will play a vital role in the nation’s defense. In fact, the Air Force plans to keep it in service at least until 2058.
That is good news for west-central Missouri. The Air Force reports that Whiteman, which employs more than 7,600 people, had an economic impact on the region of more than $650 million in 2013.
“I think the aircraft should be able to fly until 2058,” said retired Col. Mel Deaile, who piloted the B-2 in combat missions over Afghanistan. “Its role will have to evolve, as well as the munitions it delivers will have to evolve, as threats evolve.”
The current fleet of 20 B-2s has received incremental upgrades over the years. But Northrop last month was awarded a Defense Department contract capped at $9.9 billion for even more improvements. It is a flexible order, but it apparently will include a new receiver designed to withstand the high-altitude electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear detonation, according to DoDBuzz.com, a defense and acquisition journal.
Whiteman invites the public on base about once a month. On Friday, the B-2 Spirit of Hawaii looked a bit over-exposed in the bright sun as school groups and others got a chance to get fairly close to a plane that is usually cloaked in secrecy.
Three B-2 pilots gave The Star a glimpse of what it is like to fly the most specialized aircraft ever built.
“It’s pretty easy, actually,” said Ian Hart, a flight lieutenant with Britain’s Royal Air Force in an exchange program at Whiteman. “It’s designed with a good autopilot, so it can help you out. You’re talking about being able to go anywhere in the world, and that takes a long time. … So it’s got to be designed around being relatively easy to fly.”
Midair refueling by connecting to another aircraft, however, is tricky.
“You wouldn’t want to ever do any damage, so you have to be very careful,” Hart said.
Flying the B-2 is expensive, so air time for the pilots is limited. When they do exercise, they might stay over the Midwest or head to the western United States.
“It’s very common for the average pilot to fly two or three times a month in that aircraft,” said Maj. Matt Bruckner. “That is augmented with our simulator training, as well.”
Pilots also keep their skills sharp by flying a T-38 supersonic trainer.
“Stick and rudder skills, we call them,” said Maj. James Ashlock. “There’s no autopilot. The T-38 was built in the ’60s.”
There are several women B-2 pilots, one of whom is currently a squadron commander at Whiteman.
Unlike fighter jets, there is room in a B-2 cockpit, barely, for a 6-foot pilot to stand up. There are two pilots on each mission so they can alternate napping on long hauls. There is a commode with a curtain for privacy.
“It’s kind of like you’re in a minivan and the seats behind the driver and the passenger are not there,” said Bruckner.
From Cold War to Libya
The B-2 is a legacy of the Cold War. It was designed to deliver as many as 16 nuclear bombs inside the Soviet Union by using stealth technology to evade its dense air defense systems.
The plane can’t shoot to defend itself, but then it shouldn’t need to. Its radar-deflecting skin is designed to let it sneak through hostile skies undetected.
But less than four months after its first test flight, the Berlin Wall came down. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Two years after that, the first B-2, the Spirit of Missouri, was delivered to the Air Force at Whiteman.
The original plan to build 132 of the planes was slashed to 21. One of them, the Spirit of Kansas, was destroyed in a crash on Guam in 2008.
Of the remaining 20, all but one are based at Whiteman, the home of the 509th Bomb Wing. The other one is at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The newest B-2 is 17 years old, entering service in 1997. Each of the planes represents about $2.2 billion in investment, and they are expensive to maintain because they are so specialized and there are so few of them. It takes an average of nine to 10 hours of maintenance work for every hour of B-2 flight time, according to the Whiteman public affairs office.
“It’s inherently inefficient to maintain a small fleet,” said Karl Mueller, an analyst at the RAND Corp., a global policy think tank.
The B-2 was in service for six years before it first saw action, in the 1999 Kosovo war. The bomber awed the world by flying nonstop from Missouri to the Balkans and back.
By then, the plane had been retrofitted to carry conventional weapons as well as nukes. It can deliver a wide range of bombs that can be satellite-guided to dozens of targets, avoiding the carpet-bombing technique and reducing collateral damage.
The B-2 was the first American plane to enter Afghanistan airspace in October 2001, following the 9/11 attacks. Since then, it has been deployed in Iraq and Libya.
Deaile was the Air Force’s Pilot of the Year in 2001 after flying the B-2 for a record-setting 44.3-hour combat mission from Whiteman over the Pacific Ocean and targets in Afghanistan before landing at the British base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Without even powering down its engines, the plan then flew another 30 hours home without any problems.
“It’s an incredible aircraft to fly,” said Deaile, now a professor at the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. “It’s a well-designed, well-built, well-run aircraft.”
But the vast majority of sorties flown by the B-2 have been through relatively benign enemy airspace, in which its stealth qualities were not essential.
“The B-2 is seriously overqualified for those purposes,” said Stephen Biddle, a professor at George Washington University and an adjunct to the Council on Foreign Relations. “But we have them, and they have a very long range and a large payload and can deliver precision munitions, which means they can park over a battle.
“You paid the price to buy the airplane. You might as well use it.”
The B-2 also is useful as a signal of the U.S. ability to project strength during tense periods. Two of the planes were sent to joint exercises with South Korea in March 2013 when North Korea was being particularly bellicose. Last month, two B-2s were sent to Europe against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine. The training missions were planned well in advance but the timing was opportune, nonetheless.
“That’s the sort of thing that the sole remaining superpower does,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military information website.
The B-2 is also the only stealth aircraft that can deliver the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, designed to destroy heavily fortified or underground targets, such as nuclear facilities. The B-2 can carry two of the 30,000-pound bombs.
“If we had to blow up Iran, it would be the delivery system of choice,” said Pike.
The Air Force last week issued a request for proposals for the next generation of long-range bomber. It is expected to complement the B-2 rather than supplant it.
The next-generation bomber probably will be smaller and faster than the B-2 and take advantage of advances in stealth technology. It could cost $550 million apiece. Mueller said the Air Force will want a new plane that is less expensive than the B-2 so that it can procure a larger number of them.
The long-range strike bomber may come with the option of being piloted or unmanned.
Pike said an unmanned successor to the B-2 would do away with crew fatigue. Those halfway-around-the-globe sorties from Missouri may have been impressive, but “that’s a stunt, that’s not a plan,” he said.
Steven Bucci, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said drones are useful and their capabilities may improve, but “there are some decisions that have to be made on the spot, and the only way a pilot can adequately do that is to be in the cockpit that’s flying over the target.”
Deaile also thinks we will still need manned bombers, such as the B-2, for three reasons: command signals to drones could be hacked; the cost of a bomber is so great that you want a human at the controls; and humans need to be in the loop when nuclear weapons are involved.
With more than $40 billion already invested and another $10 billion coming, the B-2 remains the world’s most advanced aircraft. Bucci thinks the cost has been worth it.
“There is a certain level of investment a global power like us has to make in its war-making capability,” he said. “The B-2 gives us a really potent ability to reach out anywhere in the world at any given time and touch someone with a lot of power, and that keeps the peace to a degree.”
B-2 by the numbers
69 feet long, a 179-foot wingspan
336,500 pounds loaded weight
560 miles per hour cruising speed
6,000 nautical mile range without refueling
20 bombers in the fleet, including 19 in Missouri