This week we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the first men landing on the moon, a magnificent achievement that we still marvel at half a century later. Wednesday marked another anniversary in the annals of aerospace history that is less well known, but of significant consequence for the security of our nation—the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the B-2 stealth bomber aircraft on July 17, 1989.
Like the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts to the moon, the development and production of the B-2 Spirit was a marvel of American engineering. While the Saturn V rocket that launched the astronauts to the moon has been retired for decades, the 30-year-old B-2 is, even now, America’s newest bomber, the only stealth bomber in the world, and if history is any indicator, it will still be operating at its 50th anniversary (the youngest B-52 still flying is now over 55 years old).
The B-2 is one of the most game-changing aircraft ever built and one of the most cost-effective. It has a 172-foot wingspan, 20 feet wider than the Boeing 767 airliner, but unlike the 767, the B-2 has the radar signature of an insect—an amazing technical and manufacturing feat. Beyond the ability to use its low observability to penetrate enemy air defenses, the combination of the B-2’s large payload and precision delivery means its cost per effect is dramatically better than past or present power projection alternatives.
During World War II it took a thousand B-17 or B-24 bombers with 10,000 men and 9,000 weapons to attack a single target. Today the B-2 can attack 80 separate targets thousands of miles away with precision weapons in a single mission in a single day using two people. An aircraft carrier battle group with thousands of people, taking weeks of positioning time from thousands of miles away, and dozens of fighter-attack flights, can potentially achieve the same effects, but not with the same level of stealth, and at multiple orders of magnitude more cost both in terms of dollars and personnel.
Stealth B-2 aircraft are key elements of America’s defense architecture. They penetrate enemy air defenses in the early stages of a conflict when other forces cannot, and degrade defenses to permit other friendly military forces to operate. For precisely this reason, B-2 bombers were employed on the first night of the last four major U.S. air campaigns: Operation Allied Force in 1999, Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011.
Some still paint the B-2 and stealth as “expensive” on an individual unit cost basis, but they are in fact extraordinarily cost-effective when put in the context of expenditures required to achieve an equivalent effect using alternative means. During Allied Force, the air war over Serbia, six B-2s conducted 45 sorties out of 9,211 Air Force fighter and bomber sorties in the entire war—less than a half of one percent—but they struck 33 percent of the targets in the first eight weeks of combat.
The opening night of Operation Enduring Freedom was notable for the record-breaking 44-hour B-2 mission launched against Afghanistan directly from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri—the longest air combat mission in history. As the director of the combat air operations center during that event, I planned and oversaw that operation, and was pleased to see the B-2 contribute to shutting down the enemy Air Force in less than 15 minutes.
In the opening phases of Iraqi Freedom, B-2s struck air defense sites and hardened communications nodes. Over Libya in 2011, the B-2 dropped 45 2,000-pound global positioning satellite (GPS) guided munitions that destroyed 45 hardened aircraft shelters, essentially eliminating the Libyan fighter force on one sortie. In a more recent example, on January 19, 2017, two B-2s flying from Whiteman AFB, Missouri, released dozens of precision munitions on an Islamic State training camp in Libya. This 33-hour mission showcased the responsiveness, range, and flexibility of the B-2 force.
When I was the joint force air component commander for Pacific Command, I valued bombers more than any other asset; they were critical to overcoming the “tyranny of distance” across the vast distances of the Pacific encompassing 16 time zones. The B-2 is also the only aircraft that can deliver two 30,000-pound bunker buster bombs that may be critical in future operations against hardened and deeply buried targets such as underground nuclear weapon facilities. The Chinese recognize its potency too. When asked what he remembered most about his participation as an observer in the first Valiant Shield exercise held in Guam in 2006, the senior general from the Peoples Republic of China said it was the B-2 flyover.
Beyond the capabilities of individual aircraft in the modern bomber force, it is important to understand that force size also matters. In the years after the Cold War, U.S. forces faced threats that resulted in relatively few losses compared to earlier conflicts. Future wars facing increased enemy defenses demand that higher attrition calculations be built into the force structure. Additionally, unlike the limited regional missions that defined conflicts of the post-Cold War era, future wars will likely encompass larger operating areas—thereby increasing demand for a greater number of bomber aircraft.
In light of these trends calling for more aircraft, America’s present bomber force is too small to meet the tenets of the current national defense strategy. The nation sought a “peace dividend” following the Cold War. As a result, the Air Force reduced long-range strike capacity by radically cutting the B-2 acquisition by 85 percent—from 132 to 20 B-2s—and halving force sizes for the B-1 and B-52. In total, the bomber inventory was slashed from 661 airframes when the Berlin Wall fell to 157 bombers today. That’s a 76 percent reduction in bomber aircraft. The Air Force has invested to make the remaining bombers more effective through precision strike capabilities and other upgrades, but there is no escaping the fact that a small force—no matter how capable—can only be stretched so thin.
Developing and acquiring the new B-21 stealth bomber certainly stands as a crucially important decision in reshaping America’s military defense portfolio. Yet even so, the Air Force is currently planning on maintaining only 175 total bombers—B-21s and B-52s, with B-1s and B-2s retired in the 2030s. This is too few to support the current defense strategy and inadequate for an increasingly dangerous security environment. Decisions need to focus on mission requirements and the kind of mission and cost-effectiveness considerations illustrated above, not just acquisition and sustainment costs. The Air Force plan also risks retiring the B-2 before all its replacements are fully mission capable.
To build the force structure needed for the 21st century, the Air Force should retain and modernize its legacy force of B-1s and B-2s until it can procure B-21s to a number commensurate to the demands of our defense strategy—180. This additive approach, in combination with the stated intent to retain and modernize the B-52, builds the bomber inventory, and closes the gap between demand and available bombers in an era when range, responsiveness, payload, survivability, and versatility matter more than ever.
This approach directly addresses to the demonstrated requirement of meeting both high-end mission demands in increasingly complex threat environments, while also allowing efficient power projection against non-state actors and other persistent adversaries. While this plan may require additional funding beyond current budget plans, this is the most cost-effective answer to the challenges posed by the new National Defense Strategy.
Just as the Apollo program was a climactic instance of technological accomplishment in the realm of science and exploration in human history, so too was the B-2 a technological accomplishment in the realm of power projection in military history. The heart and soul of our Air Force since its inception are range and payload. Those attributes yield global vigilance, global reach, and global power. The nation’s small fleet of B-2s has provided these capabilities for 30 years—let’s plan on capitalizing on it for as long as it can contribute, not prematurely retire it.