If, some day, the president decides diplomacy won’t work, that the North Koreans or the Iranians must be tamed by force, the response could come from the belly of a B-2 bomber.
Then-President Barack Obama turned to the bat-winged airplane in his final days as commander-in-chief. Send the stealth jets over Libya, blow scores of Islamic State fighters to bits and bring the planes home.
Likely, military brass gave him several options.
Obama’s decision to send the B-2s showed would-be adversaries a particular American strength — that someone hiding in a north African desert can get blown up by planes flying from Missouri.
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“There’s definitely a strategic signal every time the military does these long-range missions,” said Hans M. Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists. “The message that’s being sent is that we have the capability to bring significant firepower on targets anywhere in the world. They need to make those examples from time to time.”
Because the bombers came from so far away — a distinctive U.S. edge — it reminded those in Pyongyang, Tehran and elsewhere that American forces have range. An attack can come without rallying aircraft carriers to a region, without dispatching fighters to a nearby airfield.
“They didn’t need B-2s in Libya,” said Thomas Keaney, director of the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “That was just a demonstration of strength.”
Whiteman officers insist the opposite, that only the B-2 could land so many bombs on so many targets with just two planes.
The B-2 defines much of long-distance modern warfare. The planes soar miles above the Earth, largely invisible to radar, spilling out scores of smart bombs, each reliably able to hit within 10 meters of a bull’s-eye. They seem to come from nowhere and then disappear.
For all the push-button destruction the 20 jets represent, pull back the curtain and you find meticulous belt-and-suspenders planning.
Its attacks only work when planners at Whiteman Air Force Base, about an hour’s drive southeast of Kansas City, link with assets scattered around the globe. The game plans calculate everything from gas mileage to whether the enemy is lurking beneath concrete or plywood, hiding in bunkers or on the move.
Word that the B-2 had been picked to hit Libyan targets in mid-January came first to Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets IV, commander of the 509th Bomb Wing and grandson to Paul Tibbet Jr., who dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan in 1945.
Like all the missions of the seldom-used B-2, the planning took place in a Whiteman basement. For this one, they had about a week to put a mission together. In a pinch, they could piece a plan together in 12 hours.
Some 15 to 20 people, mostly B-2 pilots (although not those who would fly the mission) huddled with intelligence officers and munitions specialists to patch together the sticky details.
In many ways, this mission proved relatively easy. For starters, one of the four previous combat missions involving the B-2 sent the bombers to Libya in March 2011 to help topple the regime of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“We definitely went to the shelf” to sketch out a plan, said Lt. Col. Justin “Vapor” Grieve, the commander of the 509th Operations Support Squadron at the time of the January Libya strikes. “We just flew a mission to Libya, relatively recently. Let’s just take that and make it better.”
Unlike a strike on the Korean peninsula that might be in the B-2’s future, or early bombing runs in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, in Iraq or the 2011 raid on Libya, no one on the ground had even a hope of shooting at planes that reportedly cruise as high as 50,000 feet.
Rather, the chief obstacles came with two things the Air Force excels at — airborne gas stations and fancy bombs.
The B-2 can fly to and from anywhere on the planet, with some help. For this Libya mission, the jets stayed aloft for 33 hours while crossing 12,000-plus miles. Depending on how much it’s weighed down by munitions, the plane’s range runs from 4,000 to 6,000 miles on a tank of fuel.
While just two jets made the trip over Libya, three left Whiteman. The third tagged along most of the trip as insurance against problems with the first two. It peeled off shortly before the target area.
That meant the tankers made mid-air rendezvous with the bombers 15 times on the back-and-forth route, five times per B-2. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told a House committee this month that 13 tankers pitched in on the mission.
Those tankers came from the East Coast, from Europe and the Middle East, although planners are coy about exactly which bases they flew from. At some stages, tankers refueled other tankers so they could then top off the B-2s.
Bombers fly below and behind the huge fuel luggers, angling the jets so a boom from the tanker can plug into the top of the B-2 and shoot in up to 5,000 pound of fuel per minute. Pilots liken the practice to two trucks moving at highway speeds while one driver pours coffee into the cup of the guy in the other lane.
“Refueling is one of the most challenging things we do,” Grieve said. “It is tiny inputs to the stick and throttle.”
To meet up with the tankers — planes backed up by spare tankers in case one of them had trouble — bent the route closer to the coasts. Politics mattered, too. Going straight to the targets would have sent the jets over Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, entangling those countries into any fallout from an attack.
The jets, flying under the call signs “Clip 1-1” and “Clip 1-2,” checked in regularly with civilian air traffic controllers and made no attempt to hide their identity. Yet they stayed over international water to avoid the air space of any country, except Libya. They cruised over the Strait of Gibraltar until heading to the camps about 30 miles southwest of the coastal city of Sirte. Then back over the Mediterranean, through the strait and across the Atlantic to Missouri.
Packing the belly
Long before the jets lifted off from Whiteman, planners studied pictures of the targets. The desert huts looked so flimsy they posed a problem. Might the bombs rip through the sandbag-and-plywood shacks so quickly that they’d detonate in the dirt below, minimizing the damage?
“If I’ve got soft, squishy things inside of a bunker that I want to kill, I want to make sure that my bomb gets inside of the bunker,” Grieve said.
That’s why the bombs are usually calibrated to explode an instant after plowing into a hardened structure, saving the boom for after a 500-pound metal device goes inside a building.
In this case, the planners calculated that plywood would not slow the bombs, moving at 1,200 feet per second, and fused them to explode the millisecond they hit the dirt below.
With that decision made, munitions teams pieced together bombs tailored for the targets. They set fuses to go off at a precise deceleration and attached the sophisticated tail kit guided by GPS signals and an internal gyroscope — the elements that convert a dumb bomb into a smart one.
Although only two planes would ever get near what the Air Force calls the “launch acceptability region” — close enough so the explosives could glide to their pre-set targets — the crews had to fill five jets with the specially assembled bombs. Two to do the damage, a third in case one of those broke down on the way, a fourth to start up on the runway in case any of the three couldn’t take off and a fifth to back up the fourth. Each loaded with 20 tons of bombs.
“You’re always hedging your bets the best you can,” Grieve said.
At Whiteman alone, the B-2 pilot and mission planner said, easily 500 people played a direct part in the bombing run. That number probably doubles when you add in the tankers (fewer people per tanker flight, but far more tankers).
Still, when planes jetted over northern Libyan, it was just four pilots in two cockpits. Yet perhaps at that point their role shrunk a bit. The planes’ computers took over, flying precision routes to spray out the 500-pounders at just the right moment.
“You absolutely utilize the autopilot to help the airplane get where it needs to go,” Grieve said.
Bombs automatically release from the bay. The plane burbles when the bomb doors open and the jet catches subtle turbulence.
In the latest attack, the B-2s arrived over their targets about midnight Libya time over a thin blanket of clouds. It took about a minute for the bombs to reach the ground before pilots saw the haze below them light up like a muffled fireworks show.
“They saw the flash on the undercast,” Grieve said. “They said it was kind of neat to see.”
In all, the two planes released a total of 85 bombs in two minutes. They were prepared to quickly swing back for another drop.
But low-flying Predator drones flew over to assess the damage and to fire Hellfire missiles that killed five men on foot.
“(The predators) were there to basically clean up any ‘squirters’ … a terrorist that manages to walk away from the incident,” Grieve said.
Those same unmanned vehicles had scouted the area before. What their cameras saw led to re-targeting some bombs — pilots dialed in new coordinates on their dashboards — while the B-2s were on the way to the desert. Meanwhile, Marines in the Mediterranean stood ready for search and rescue missions if something went wrong.
All told, the Pentagon thinks 78 people were killed, meaning a bomb per person with explosions to spare.
Two refuelings and roughly 16 hours later, the B-2s taxied to a halt at Whiteman.
And next …
What problems might North Korea’s defenses pose?
“I can’t speak specifically to that … I probably should just leave it at that,” Grieve said.
The North Koreans have covered the countryside with anti-aircraft defense systems. The catch, analysts say, is that their technology is at least 25 years old. That’s older than the B-2.
A day before President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, met on U.S. soil, on Wednesday the North Koreans conducted yet another missile test. It’s unclear yet whether the country could outfit the missile with a nuclear warhead, or whether it could reach the U.S.
But the White House could decide it’s not willing to see what happens. One option is to hit test missiles on their launchpads. That could be done with Tomahawk cruise missile fired from the sea. It’s likely a better option than the B-2, which could take a half day or more to reach the site and at least as long to set up a mission. The North Koreans could wheel a missile to a launchpad and fire it into the sky long before the bombers could arrive.
Analysts say a B-2 strike makes more sense in a broader attack aimed at wiping out, or at least setting back, the North Korean nuclear capability. Packed with its smallest bombs, a B-2 can theoretically hit more than 190 targets in a single run.
It would need some of its biggest bunker busters, 30,000-pound “massive ordnance penetrators,” to punch through the hardest targets. It can pack just two of those at a time, but they represent the best shot at damaging underground sites.
“If you had an ambitious goal, if you wanted to physically destroy most of their war-making capability,” said Owen Cote, the associate director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “I’m sure the B-2 would fit into that.”
Military analysts say it’s hard to gauge whether the B-2 might figure in a campaign to stop Kim Jong Un from developing, and continuing to test, long-range missiles that might land a nuclear weapon on the West Coast — or how willing the Trump administration would be to use preemptive force against the North Koreans.
The stealth bombers also could have reliably been used to strike in Syria after the regime there used chemical weapons on civilians. Instead, the U.S. used cruise missiles, which have the advantage of not putting pilots or planes at risk.
In the future, the B-2 could hit Iranian targets to set back any nuclear ambitions of that Muslim state.
“No other nation has that capability … to send bombers from our homeland to any place on the globe,” said Mark Gunzinger, a former Air Force colonel and B-52 pilot now working as a senior fellow at the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments. “Using that force projection in Libya serves as a deterrent to rivals elsewhere.”
B-2 combat missions
▪ March 1999, Operation Allied Force: Bombing over the former Yugoslavia to protect Kosovars against Serbian oppression. When NATO troops were greeted by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo after the bombing, they found civilians with hand-made posters glorifying the B-2. That may also have marked the plane’s most difficult confrontation with air defenses on the ground.
▪ September 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom: The stealthy jet came in the early waves of air attacks to knock out relatively primitive anti-aircraft defenses in Afghanistan.
▪ March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom: B-2s flew 22 missions from British-controlled Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and 27 more from Whiteman.
▪ March 2011, Operation Odyssey Dawn: B-2 bombs knocked out many of Moammar Gadhafi’s military planes with strikes on a major Libyan airfield.
▪ January 2017, Operation Odyssey Lightning: B-2s faced no air defenses in blasting suspected Islamic State terrorist camps in conjunction with Predator drones.