On March 24, 1999, two bat-winged B-2 bombers from Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri flew around the globe to drop their munitions on Serb targets in Kosovo. The around-the-globe sortie marked the first combat experience of the $2.2 billion bomber. While the military effect of this particular mission was marginal, it could have serious repercussions back in Washington, re-opening a debate which many thought had ended in 1997.
History of the B-2
In 1988, Congress was shocked to learn that over $22 billion had already been spent on the B-2. Pentagon figures revealed that the estimate for 132 planes had skyrocketed from $21.9 billion in 1981, to $70.2 billion in 1990. Most members of Congress knew nothing about the B-2 program, and this revelation intensified the debate as the unit cost of each B-2 kept climbing. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, most justification for this excessive and unproven Cold War weapon system also ceased.
In 1993, Congress decided to cap the B-2 program at 20 planes at a cost of no more than $44.4 billion. In July 1994, a year after Congress adopted the cap, the Senate voted 55-45 to appropriate $125 million to "preserve the option" to produce the B-2 in the future. This money was allocated to pay contractors and subcontractors whose work was running out. The rationale was that the only way to ensure the capability to produce the B-2 in the future was to continue to produce the bomber.
It was during the 1994 debate that supporters of the B-2 began to argue that the B-2 could be modified for a conventional war. Re-armed with Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), the B-2 would be capable of attacking 16 separate targets. These B-2 proponents contended that the Air Force needed to replace the aging B-52, which entered into service during the 1950s. Moreover, B-2 proponents asserted that bombers would be necessary for regional conflicts, because nuclear, biological or chemical weapons could put overseas bases for tactical aircraft out of commission.
The B-2 became a political issue once again during the 1996 Presidential campaign, when Republican nominee Bob Dole, in an attempt to curry favor in California, Washington state and Ohio, promised to build 20 additional B-2s. Although not going as far as his opponent, President Clinton used funds authorized for B-2 upgrades to convert the prototype model of the B-2 into an deployable weapon. The conversion of the prototype brought the number of B-2s to 21.
All 21 B-2's have been delivered to the Air Force. Presently there are nine B-2s in the operational fleet at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. The remainder are in various stages of refurbishment at the Northrop Grumman facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif.
Block 20 configured aircraft have an interim capacity to launch nuclear and conventional munitions, including the GAM guided munition. The Block 20 has been tested with the Mk-84, 2,000-pound, general-purpose bombs and the CBU-87/B Combined Effects Munition cluster bombs (low-altitude, full-bay release).
Block 30 configured aircraft are fully capable and meet the essential goals defined by the Air Force. The first fully configured Block 30 aircraft was delivered to the Air Force in August 1997. Compared to the Block 20, the Block 30s have almost double the radar modes along with enhanced terrain-following capability and the ability to deliver additional weapons, including the Joint Direct Attack Munition and the Joint Stand Off Weapon. Other features include incorporation of configuration changes needed to make B-2s conform to the approved radar signature; replacement of the aft decks; installation of remaining defensive avionics functions; and installation of a contrail management system.
All 21 aircraft are to eventually be modified to the objective block 30 configuration. This modification process began in July 1995 and is scheduled to be completed in June 2000.
The B-2s were deployed from Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri, flying 30 hours non-stop and refueling twice in mid-air each way. They were deployed against well defended targets such as air defenses, command posts and communications facilities.
One of the major reasons why the B-2 was used so often during the air campaign was that many of the laser-guided munitions in the Pentagon's arsenal were rendered ineffective by the bad weather over Yugoslavia. The JDAM, however, could be deployed regardless of weather conditions.
Rebuttals to arguments by proponents of the
Stealth is vital to maintain air dominance. One component of the B-2 which was not tested over Kosovo was its stealthiness. Allied planes used electronic jamming devices and radiation seeking missiles to disable Serb radars. Moreover, the first US aircraft lost in action was a stealthy F-117, which became visible to Serb radar when it fired its missiles, and a second was badly damaged. Furthermore, stealth only works at night. The aircraft is visible to the eye during the day.
The B-2 puts fewer US pilots in harm's way. During the Congressional debate on building more B-2s, proponents of the B-2 claimed that two B-2s could do the work of 75 aircraft: the "visible" bombers, plus a package of escorting electronic warfare aircraft, fighters, air suppression aircraft. However, the Pentagon was unwilling to send the B-2 in to action without protection. At a cost of $2.2 billion per aircraft, it is unlikely that anyone in the Pentagon wants to be responsible for losing a B-2.
The B-2 bomber can be deployed within 24 hours anywhere in the globe. During the war in Kosovo, B-2 supporters were quick to churn out stories about how B-2 crews would drive their kids to school, go to Whiteman AFB, fly across the Atlantic to bomb targets in Kosovo, and then return in time to mow the lawn. Pentagon propagandists used this angle to show how the B-2 could be used with minimal impact to the personal lives of their pilots. What is missing from this story, however, is that the B-2 cannot be deployed overseas without extreme costs. The B-2 needs to be kept in special climate controlled hangars to prevent damage to the radar absorbing skin of the aircraft. Other aircraft, including the B-52, are deployed at forward bases such as Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean or Guam in the Pacific, in order to reduce flying time between the base and the target. While the ability to deploy within 24 hours would be advantageous if the US needed to launch a quick strike, the Pentagon acknowledges that other platforms such as aircraft carriers and forward airbases are essential for undertaking sustained campaigns. The B-2, on the other hand, needs an average of 24.6 man-hours of maintenance per hour of flight time. A June 1999 GAO report, the sixth critical report in five years, questioned the durability of the B-2's special radar-deflecting skin and argued that the plane needs so much regular attention that in wartime it cannot be easily moved to forward locations where it would be of greatest use. In order to deploy the B-2 overseas, the Air Force estimates that it must purchase 13 portable facilities to house and maintain the B-2.
Additional B-2 bombers are necessary because current B-52 bombers are too old. The B-52 bomber entered into service during the 1950s. Although they would be around 80 years old, the Pentagon estimates that the B-52 can remain in service until about the year 2040. Even though the United States is not building any more bombers, the March 1999 Air Force White Paper on Long Range bombers estimated that the US would not need to consider replacing current bombers until the year 2013, and that the Air Force would have sufficient bombers until 2037.
The Pentagon wants additional B-2 bombers. Following action in Kosovo, Pentagon officials were careful with their comments on the B-2, praising its effectiveness, but stopping well short of endorsing additional bombers. Would the Pentagon accept additional bombers if Congress authorized them? Of course. However, buying additional B-2 bombers is one of the last Pentagon priorities. The Air Force's top priority is the F-22 fighter, followed closely by spare parts, training, recruitment, and quality of life issues. Even with additional funding, the B-2 would be among the last items on the Pentagon's wish-list.
The B-2 is the best weapon for the next decade. An exhaustive $4.5 million study conducted by the nonpartisan Institute for Defense Analysis which used current and projected U.S. war plans, enemy threats, and battlefield simulations to examine a variety of potential scenarios in the years up to 2014 show unequivocally that even 20 more B-2 bombers would provide little additional utility in potential conflicts in Korea and the Persian Gulf.
The B-2 has proven itself in a conventional role. The B-2 is a "silver bullet," a weapon which should be bought in small quantities and reserved for those critical situations in which its unique qualities would give essential leverage to other U.S. forces with less sophisticated weaponry. In Kosovo, the B-2 was used to destroy highly defended targets such as communications facilities, command centers and other tactical nodes during the first hours of a war to lessen the danger to other aircraft which follow. Air Force Brigadier General Leroy Barnidge Jr., commander of the 509th Bomber Wing, which includes all the B-2s, stated. "We kick the door in and make it so others can follow." The B-2 is not the backbone of US air power, however. As was the case in Kosovo, the lion's share of sorties in future conflicts will still be assigned F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, B-1s and B-52s. Moreover, the ability to drop the highly-touted JDAM is not unique to the B-2. Other aircraft including the F-117, F-15, and B-52 either carry or are being modified to carry this effective weapon.
Despite the apparent success of the B-2 in the Kosovo air campaign, it is not likely that the Pentagon will push for additional B-2s. The Air Force has higher priorities, and all four services are undergoing modernization programs.
Members of the House of Representatives who have a parochial interest in the B-2 have begun making inquiries about either purchasing additional B-2 bombers or an entirely new intercontinental bomber. The B-2 production lines at Northrop and major subassembly contractors are now closed. If Congress were to authorize additional purchases of the B-2, the earliest a new aircraft could be delivered would be 2005. However, the House has only approved funding for the B-2 by the narrowest of margins in 1997 and in 1995. The Senate has been steadfast in its opposition to the B-2 since 1993.
In an era of tight budgets, a $2.2 billion bomber lacking a firm mission and experiencing technical difficulties is a luxury the US cannot afford. A force of 21 B-2s gives the Air Force a "silver bullet" for future operations.