The world’s priciest-ever airplane, a bomber that can strike around the globe from its Missouri home, treats Guam as its Pacific getaway.
Saber rattling by North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump has turned the world’s attention to the Pacific island that holds so much American firepower, sometimes including the B-2 stealth bomber.
Trump threatened “fire and fury” if Pyongyang didn’t back off arming itself with nuclear-tipped long-range missiles. The North Korean government responded by saying it was on pace to give Kim battle plans by mid-August for landing warheads within a few dozen miles of the U.S. territory.
America’s fleet of 20 B-2 bombers is based at Whiteman Air Force Base, about an hour’s drive southeast of Kansas City. From there, the long-range planes have launched days-long flights to drop ordnance on Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The bat-winged jets regularly deploy to Guam, where the bombers can take shelter in typhoon-proof hangars designed by Kansas City engineering firm Burns & McDonnell.
If the White House ultimately decides to pummel North Korean targets — perhaps blasting its missile launch sites or nuclear facilities — many analysts expect the B-2 to be among the first weapons pulled from the Pentagon’s quiver.
“One hundred percent,” said Owen Cote, the associate director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It wouldn’t be the whole strike. If we do this, it would be on a massive scale. But the B-2 would be a part of it.”
The Defense Department has poured more than $2.2 billion into each of the jets in design, manufacturing and upgrades — including $2.7 billion in ongoing improvements across the fleet — along with hundreds of millions more to keep them and their crews combat-ready.
They offer two distinct advantages over other weapons in the U.S. arsenal — unparalleled abilities to dodge detection from an enemy, and the capacity to plant satellite-guided weapons on scores of targets in a single flight. Depending on the size of the munitions, a B-2 could drop a pair of bunker busters during a sortie or let loose more than 150 smaller bombs all able to hit separate bull’s-eyes.
Those same planes can also carry nuclear weapons.
Analysts say potential payloads for the jets are likely stored at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. Officials at Whiteman said Thursday that no B-2s were currently in Guam. The planes also fly from the British territory on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Royal Air Force Base in Fairford, England.
Air Force brass issued news releases in May 2016 announcing that three B-2s had been deployed to Guam. That came during another flare-up in U.S.–North Korea relations and as Beijing was asserting disputed claims in the South China Sea. Sending B-2s to the Pacific was seen at the time as a demonstration of American military muscle.
“Guam is one of our unsinkable aircraft carriers in a forward position where we can attack our most formidable enemies,” said John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org. “If we were to take action against Pyongyang, the heavy bombers would fly to Guam, get out and stretch their legs, and then clobber everything there is to clobber in North Korea.”
He doesn’t think it’s likely to happen, instead seeing the latest tensions as bluster that will leave Guam and the 160,000 or so U.S. citizens on the island — roughly the population of Springfield, Mo. — out of harm’s way. North Korea’s threat to drop missiles just offshore, he said, would only give American military planners a better understanding of how to knock them out of the sky in an attack aimed at American soil.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday told Breitbart.com that the people on Guam should not be worried about the North Korean threats.
Guam, a staging ground for military action for generations, also has a Navy port and an anti-missile unit geared toward North Korea.
B-2s have never flown combat bombing runs from Guam, although a spokesman for the 509th Bomb Wing said its training missions from the island have been conducted “in support of bomber assurance and deterrence operations” in the Pacific.
The only loss of a B-2 came in Guam in February 2008 when sensors on the jet told the plane’s computers it was diving dangerously when it was actually climbing. That misdirection triggered the jet’s electronics to seize control from the pilot, and lifted the Spirit of Kansas into a catastrophic stall and a crash 15 seconds after it took flight.
Two pilots ejected from the plane. The first out of the plane was now-Lt. Col. Justin “Vapor” Grieve, who suffered a spine fracture and was grounded for four months. “I’m completely fine now,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
After supertyphoon Pongsona scoured Guam in 2002, the Department of Defense coaxed Congress into spending $32 million for super-weatherproof hangars for the B-2 and other heavy bombers, including the B-1 bomber that has flown in training flights over the Korean peninsula in recent weeks.
The 51,000-square-foot structure, designed by Burns & McDonnell and completed in 2005, is critical to using the B-2. It can withstand earthquakes, common on the island, and winds of up to 170 mph. The weather on Guam can be dramatic at times, and the stealth bombers need special climate-controlled environments to make repairs to its radar-absorbing skin. Even slight nicks or dents in the surface can reduce its ability to remain invisible to anti-air defenses.
Burns & McDonnell continues to do work on the island, designing other hangars and ongoing projects upgrading military fueling supply systems for the Navy. Executives describe it as resembling Hawaii and dominated by Asian tourism and U.S. military operations.
“It’s a very friendly place,” said Mark Zimmerman, the company’s director of defense projects. “It feels American.”