█ K. LEE LERNER
The United States Air Force B-2 stealth technology lowobservable, strategic, long-range bomber is designed to penetrate air defense systems and destroy command, control, and air defense infrastructure during the opening days of a conflict when enemy forces and air defenses are fully operational.
A specially contoured radar absorbing skin and exhaust baffling system makes the flying wing configuration B-2 almost impossible to detect by radar and difficult to target with conventional thermal based system. The leading edges of the B-2 wings angle aft at approximately 33 degrees and trailing edge has a characteristic double "W" form. Although the B-2 does leave a weak RADAR return signature, the delay and low signal return confuse or obscure the B-2 track until it is too close to target—or has long passed the drop point.
The B-2 carries a crew of two and is equipped with a electronic flight instrumentation system (EFIS), that provides variable heads-up display of flight, engine, navigation, and weapons status.
Built by Northrop Grumman and costing more than $2 billion per bomber, the B-2 is the world's most expensive combat airplane.
The stealth technology requires special care, especially to preserve optimal "invisibility" to RADAR. To ensure this care, each B-2 is housed in a special climate-controlled hanger. The skin requires special treating occuring between missions to remove dirt and moisture. These special maintenance requirements meant that prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom the B-2 fleet operated exclusively out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. As a result, with mid-air refueling, B-2 crews flew 44-hour long round-trip bombing missions over Afghanistan in 2001. To increase the tempo of B-2 missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the air force transported (forward deployed) special climate-controlled shelters at bases in England and at the Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean.
As of April 2003, the U.S. Air force had 21 operational B-2s. It made its first secret operational flight in 1989. Stealth technology made its debut during the Persian Gulf War (1990–1991) and the B-2 saw action in Kosovo and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom).
The B-2 is designed to carry satellite-guided bombs, including earth penetrating "bunker busters" that can penetrate 20 or 30 feet of dirt or concrete before detonating. During Operation Iraqi Freedom a B-2 led strike opened the war with an attempt on an Iraqi leadership bunker in Baghdad that western intelligence sources thought might contain Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Nearly three weeks later another B-2 dropped four GBU-37 "bunker buster" bombs on a Baghdad target that U.S. intelligence sources source identified as a possible meeting location for Hussein and/or other enemy leaders. The missions were notable because the B-2s, already flying above Baghdad air defenses, were fully integrated with ground based intelligence operations that allowed no more than 35 minutes to elapse from the generation of on-site intelligence to weapons delivery on target.
To maintain its stealth configuration, the B-2 carries all its weapons internally in two separate weapons bays. The B-2 can carry up to 40,000 lbs (18,000 kg) of weapons load, including both conventional and nuclear precision-guided bombs and missiles. Operating at altitudes near 50,000 ft, B-2's can carry a number of conventional and nuclear weapons including, but not limited to, eight GBU-37s or 16 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) and an undisclosed number of Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOW) and AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles (with an estimated strike range of 1,500 miles).
█ FURTHER READING:
Jones, Joseph. Stealth Technology. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books, 1994.
Air Force Technology, B-2. <http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/b2/> (April 8, 2003).
F-117A Stealth Fighter