The B-2 is a 2-3 man crew “flying wing” (an aircraft which consists mostly of one main (fixed) wing structure, used to hold most of its crew, payload and systems (no definite fuselage)) multi-role bomber, enhanced with “low observable” stealth technology to penetrate heavy anti-aircraft defenses and capable of deploying nuclear weapons. Originally built by Northrop Grumman to serve America during the Cold War in the 1980s, the B-2 was specifically designed to pass through Soviet Russia’s dense anti-aircraft defenses and (if necessary) make use of its nuclear bombs. It is United States’ only stealth bomber.
Developments of the B-2 began with the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) “black project” (i.e. a U.S./U.K. classified military project) in 1979 , in order to enforce United States’ military strength and have the upper hand in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The project was not kept secret to the end, as its details were gradually revealed during its development by the Department of Defense, starting from August 22, 1980. After company proposal evaluations, the remaining competing teams were Northrop/Boeing and Lockheed/Rockwell. On October 20, 1981, after examination of both aircraft, Northrop’s/Boeing’s bomber design was selected over Lockheed’s/Rockwell’s design. Soon after, it received its designation (B-2) and name (Spirit), following several modifications throughout the mid 1980s, made in order to convert its flight performance from the firstly desired high-altitude, to low-altitudes, and also to new types of terrains. The cost of the whole revolutionary development was reported over 44.754 billion dollars (in a higher value than today’s U.S. dollars), funded under the code name “Aurora”.
By the early 1990s, the Cold War ended (with the Soviet Union’s disintegration), and the United States Air Force had no further (serious) need for a massive nuclear stealth bomber. Due to the high costs of the project, the operation and the maintenance of the B-2, the United States Air Force had to cut back on their purchase from 132 bombers to 75, than to 20 and finally to 21. Because of the relatively small number of serving B-2s and the high cost of program engineering, developing and testing, the total amount of money invested in every B-2 was VERY high, equaling (about) 2.2 billion dollars! (calculated as an average- the total program’s cost in addition to the cost of 21 B-2s (the unit cost of a B-2: minimum 738 million dollars- it varies on whether we add the price of its maintenance equipment), divided by the total number of B-2s (21)). The B-2’s enormous price (2.2 billion dollars) is four to five times higher than the cost of its weight in gold!
The B-2 served at first during the Kosovo War in 1999, in which it destroyed during the first 8 weeks 33 percent of all Serbian bombing targets, and was the first aircraft to deploy GPS satellite guided JDAM "Smart Bombs" in that war. Later it was also deployed in the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq.
The B-2’s aerodynamic shape, large payload of 18 tons (40,000 pounds), large combat range and stealth capabilities make it an ideal bomber. During its service in three campaigns, it executed ridiculously long missions, both in distance and time, by continuously flying for whole days (like in the sorties of the War in Iraq, in which it stayed airborne for over 30 hours, including one mission which lasted even more than 50 hours) from distant airbases (like the Whiteman Air Force Base, located in Missouri, United States) to its destination in Kosovo/Afghanistan/Iraq, and back. The B-2 could travel up to 11,100 km (6,900 miles) in one conventional unrefueled flight, so it could reach any point in the world, if refueled just once during the flight.
As mentioned before, the survivability of the B-2 greatly relies on its stealth, which allows it to avoid detection, thus also avoid interception. The B-2 can pass through most detection systems unnoticed by reducing the emitted amounts of infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual and (mainly) radar signals, which compromise the aircraft’s location when received by their respective detection systems (as an example-radar systems pick on radar signals). Much of the involved knowledge in stealth technology is kept classified, known only to its authorities and the companies which deal with it. However, it was publicly disclosed that the B-2’s stealth leans on its shape, its fuselage’s composite materials (the “skin’s” components make half of the hitting radar waves bounce back, while all other waves in the other half penetrate it, bounce internally, pass through a way that’s shorter/longer by half a wavelength, come out, and cancel the other half of hitting waves- it works on a variety of wavelengths) and special sprayed coating (a spray which includes iron- a material that’s known to absorb radio signals).
Until today, no B-2 was downed by enemy fire, much thankfully to its stealth capabilities (only one crash of a B-2 occurred. It happened in February 23, 2008, and was claimed to be a result of a system malfunction-there were no casualties). It executed bombing missions with amazingly high precision, reaching almost 100% of accuracy! (The only time the B-2 “missed” was when it was informed about a false target- it blew up the embassy of China in Belgrade, though it intended to hit it, so it isn’t really a “miss”) Considering the fact that it was designed to deliver nuclear bombs and heavy unconventional armaments, it is rather surprising to learn that it eventually turned to be United States’ best conventional JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) bombs launch platform, as it could use its stealth to approach its targets close enough to launch short-range attack weapons instead of expensive standoff weapons. The launching capabilities of the B-2 also contribute to its performance; it can launch up to 16 different JDAM bombs at the same time, towards 16 different targets. Overall, it performed its duties well, but the main problem was that it didn’t do it all by itself- regularly, the B-2 was accompanied by 14 escort airplanes and kept busy 85 crew members who followed and protected it to ensure that the expensive airplane will stay unharmed. It only later became clear that the escorting force was large enough to carry on the missions without the B-2 itself. Not only that- the large quantities of radar wave absorbent material used by the B-2 demanded extensive and very expensive care in air conditioned hangers, which had to be large enough to fit inside the B-2’s 52.4 m (172 ft) long wingspan. The long necessary duration of the B-2 in the hangar also posed a problem, when it reached 119-124 hours of maintaining for every flight hour- a serious waste of time, work and money, especially when U.S.’s other two bombers had much lower demands- the B-52 needed only 53 maintaining hours for every flight hour, and the B-1B needed 60. This brought the B-2’s mission capability rate to only 26% of the time, which is also inferior to the B-52 which is deployable 80% of the time, and the B-1, which is available 53% of the time- twice the B-2’s ready rate. And it doesn’t stop here- in 1997 the B-2’s reputation as a stealth bomber was utterly thrashed, when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a special report, claiming that the B-2’s special coating is not water-proof, and loses its stealth characteristics when exposed to rain and high moisture. To prove it wrong, the U.S.A.F. and Northrop quickly arranged a demonstration show, in which they splashed water on a B-2 from all directions to prove that it works even when wet. Soon after, it turned into a worldwide joke. The Pentagon, however, did not find it humorous, as it doesn’t seem funny when 2.22 billions of your dollars turn into a laughing matter.
It is still not clear whether the B-2 can fully operate while flying wet, but one thing remains certain: it gets the job done. Today, stealth is not a necessity in the United States’ Air Force service, as their bombers are rarely facing serious threats, and the main critical requirement is precision-bombing, which is done best by the B-2. Besides that, high moisture problems may prove to be minor; after all, the GAO also criticized the AH-64 Apache for having the same troubles (moisture and rain), claiming that they make it almost useless. The GAO was eventually proved wrong when the Apache showed its true capabilities during the War in Iraq, which made it clear that it is actually the best helicopter in the world.