At Whiteman, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calls for the U.S. to build a replacement for the B-2 bomber

Chuck Hagel, the outgoing U.S. defense secretary, met with service members Tuesday at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Mo.
Chuck Hagel, the outgoing U.S. defense secretary, met with service members Tuesday at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Mo. The Kansas City Star

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told troops at Whiteman Air Force Base on Tuesday that the U.S. needs to start building a replacement for the B-2 stealth bomber. And soon.

“The one thing we cannot fall behind in is modernization,” Hagel said. “That has to start now.”

He noted that the earliest B-2s first flew 25 years ago.

Although he said the plane still provides a valuable nuclear deterrent, the soon-to-be-former defense secretary said newer technology needs to be added to the American arsenal to remain ahead of future rivals to the U.S.

Hagel said funding uncertainties for a yet-to-be-designed long-range strike bomber — to follow the B-2 the way the stealth jet followed and overlapped with the B-1 and the B-52 that came before it — threaten American military superiority.

He said budget sequestration driven by congressional gridlock hurts military readiness in the moment and for years to come.

“Sequestration is a mindless, irresponsible way to govern,” Hagel said.

His remarks to troops at the Air Force base came on a farewell tour marking the close of his time atop the Pentagon.

The defense secretary submitted his resignation in November amid reports that President Barack Obama was ready for him to go. The former Republican senator is said to have struggled to win the president’s ear and saw other foreign policy advisers dominate conversation in the White House. Some of those in the president’s inner circle reportedly complained that Hagel was not forceful enough in internal national security debates.

Hagel has said he had no major differences with Obama and has described his resignation as a “mutual decision” with the White House.

Last summer, the Air Force sought requests for proposals on a long-range strike bomber to ultimately replace the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

It will take several years to design, test and build a plane and to launch a bomber that stays ahead of fast-changing military technology. It took decades to produce a fleet of 21 B-2 bombers. And because fewer were built than original plans called for, they cost taxpayers more than $2 billion a copy. Ongoing upgrades to the bat-winged marvels probably have since added hundreds of millions to the cost of each one.

The Defense Department hopes to build its successor for about $550 million each and have the planes airborne by the mid-2020s. Air Force Secretary Deborah James has called the project the service’s top modernization priority.

At the base near Knob Noster — about 60 miles southeast of Kansas City — Hagel said decisions made today will determine the firepower at generals’ disposal a decade from now. Reluctance to develop new weapons because of pressing budget worries, he said, will matter “for our children and our grandchildren.”

“That’s going to have an effect on your defense capabilities,” he said. “Uncertainty is the worst spot to be in.”

Whiteman is best known as the home base of the Air Force’s 509th Bomb Wing and its fleet of B-2s. The long-range jets were first built for nuclear attacks. But many of the planes have been repurposed for conventional warfare and have seen action since the late 1990s as first-strike bombers in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Their chief attribute comes in the way the shape of the aircraft and a specialized matte black skin avoid detection by radar and other anti-aircraft defenses. When refueled in the air, they are capable of flying from the Midwest to any spot on the globe and hit dozens of targets without having to land.

The base also has the 442nd Fighter Wing and its A-10 Thunderbolt “Warthogs” that proved valuable providing support for ground troops during the early stages of the Iraqi invasion in 2003.

But those planes date to the Vietnam War, and the Air Force has said it plans to retire the A-10 fleet soon.

“Like all effective platforms, we need to upgrade and modernize,” Hagel said.

He noted that the B-2, among other aircraft, can now take over some tasks that the far smaller A-10 was designed to do — such as dropping multiple precision-guided weapons in a single sortie.

About two dozen of the A-10 attack planes are stationed at Whiteman. By retiring all the Air Force’s Warthogs, the Pentagon hopes to save billions of dollars.

Hagel would not say when the A-10s at Whiteman would be set aside.

The total workplace at Whiteman — both military and civilian organized around the A-10s, B-2s and other aircraft — fluctuates between 7,000 and 8,000.

Obama has nominated Ashton Carter as Hagel’s replacement. Senate confirmation hearings could begin as early as next month. Carter has served previously in several high-ranking civilian posts at the Pentagon.

If confirmed in the job, he will take over a Defense Department wrestling with the Islamic State militant threat in Iraq and Syria, an Afghanistan still roiling after an American troop withdrawal, the unraveling of Iraq, a newly beligerent Russia and emerging threats of cyberattacks. On Monday, hackers claiming to represent the Islamic State commandeered the Twitter and YouTube accounts of U.S. Central Command.

Hagel said this week’s hack “wasn’t a big deal.” But he added it hints at the increasing number of threats facing the American military.

“It reminds you how capable (some terror groups) are,” he said. “And they’re not the best.”

Since the announcement that he was leaving the Pentagon, Hagel has traveled to military installations overseas and across the country to tell troops he appreciates their service. After fielding a handful of questions from troops Thursday, Hagel posed for photographs with more than 200 service members in a hangar at Whiteman.

“I’m well aware of this base and your mission,” Hagel said, “and how well you do it.”

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send email to scanon@kcstar.com.

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