The Buzz

Why the B-2 Stealth Bomber Might Be America's Most Dangerous Weapon

The B-2 Spirit is one of three strategic heavy bombers in U.S. Air Force service. Originally conceived to infiltrate the Soviet air-defense network and attack targets with nuclear weapons, over the decades its mission has grown to include conventional precision attack. The B-2 is the most advanced bomber in U.S. service, and the only one of three types that still carries nuclear gravity bombs.

In the late 1970s, the administration of President Jimmy Carter opposed the high-speed B-1A bomber as a waste of government money. Carter had been briefed on the new field of stealth technology and was responsible for the development of the F-117A stealth fighter. Instead of the B-1A, Carter authorized development of the Advanced Technology Bomber, or Stealth Bomber. Little was known about the bomber at the time except that it would incorporate new radar-evading technologies and possibly a dramatically different shape than previous bombers.

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The U.S. Air Force sent out a Request for Proposal in 1980, and in October 1981 Northrop won a $7.3 billion initial contract to produce 127 Advanced Technology Bombers. Northrop was a curious pick—after all, it had not produced any bombers since World War II.

Northrop had been working on stealth since at least the mid-1960s. At a research facility in Rancho Palos Verdes, California Northrop had been working on radar-evading aircraft shapes and radar-resistant materials. The company lost the competition to build the Experimental Survivable Test Bed (XST), what would later become the stealth fighter to Lockheed, but did win the opportunity to build another stealth test bed, Tacit Blue. Tacit Blue featured 360 degree stealth, a must-have for a penetrating strategic bomber.

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Engineers had long known that flying wings had a minimal radar signature, and flying wings were a Northrop specialty. The company had produced four flying wings: the Northrop N-9M, the XB-35 and YB-49, and the YB-49A. None had been picked up by the Air Force, but it gave Northrop a great deal of experience with the aircraft form. A flying wing properly shaped to further confound radar and use of advanced composite materials would create the ultimate penetration bomber, undetectable by radar.

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The B-2 was developed as a black program, with all of the pluses and minuses that entails. On the plus side, it was developed with a high level of secrecy, and until rollout in 1988 few were sure exactly what the B-2 looked like. On the other hand costs—and development problems that caused them to rise—were kept secret until 1988. The cost of the overall B-2 program rose from 35.7 to 42.8 billion dollars. Approximately one billion was spent strengthening the wing, an Air Force requirement, should the bomber ever be required to fly at low altitude. There were also allegations of fraud and overcharging, at least one of which was settled out of court. The poisoned relationship between the Air Force and Northrop is regarded by some as one reason why the Advanced Technology Fighter competition, which produced the F-22A Raptor fighter, went to competitor Lockheed Martin and not Northrop.

On November 22, 1988 the first B-2 was rolled out at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, and given the name “Spirit.” The bomber looked like a boomerang, with a serrated rear section. Like previous Northrop designs it lacked a tail, seamlessly blended wing and body, and buried its four General Electric F118-GE-100 non-afterburning turbofans deep within the aircraft fuselage. Spectators were kept 200 feet from the aircraft to prevent close inspection of the plane’s features.

At the time of rollout, the B-2’s unit cost was estimated at $515 million each, making it the most expensive plane ever made. The value of stealth had not been proven in battle, and Congress began to fret about the cost of the projected 132 aircraft. On top of cost and effectiveness issues Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms had considerably lowered tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, reducing the likelihood of nuclear conflict. The number of aircraft was eventually trimmed to just twenty-one.

The B-2 is sixty-nine feet long and seventeen feet high. It has wingspan of 172 feet—exactly the same as that of the XB-35 and YB-49. It has a speed of 680 miles an hour, and had a maximum altitude of 50,00 feet. It has an unrefueled range of 6,000 miles, and has midair refueling capability.

The new bomber was one of the first military aircraft to make widespread use of new composite materials. Nearly 80 percent of the aircraft is made from woven composites that incorporated glass, carbon, and graphite fibers, while the remainder is made of aluminum and titanium. The Spirit also has a radar absorbent coating whose sole purpose is to further reduce the radar signature. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Larry Welch has stated that the B-2 has a radar cross section in the “insect category.”

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