At first glance, this looks more extraterrestrial than of this world. The iconic triangular shape and the whisper-thin design has the capability of slipping almost undetected in and out of enemy skies, and the weaponry to deliver utter devastation on the ground. This deadly phantom is the B-2 Spirit – otherwise known as, the Stealth Bomber.
The B-2 Spirit is a simply mesmerising aircraft on many levels, but it certainly starts with its sumptuous design. It is an aircraft of grace and elegance, which contrasts with the hell it can unleash.
Having just passed the grand old age of 31 you might expect that this dark knight of the skies could be nearing retirement age – or at least a backseat role to more modern aircraft – but that is just not the case. The B-2 Spirit remains one of the most feared aircraft on the planet, and a key component to the U.S Air Force.
Like many pieces of military hardware developed in the 1970s and 1980s, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union meant that they entered service in a very different world than they had originally been designed for. The long-distance stealth bombing raids on Soviet targets was always slightly unrealistic if you look at how the Cold War developed, but from 1991, the long-held enemy disappeared almost overnight – just as the most sophisticated bomber the world had ever seen was emerging.
This was a long development process and was to prove controversial because of its vast costs. By the mid-1970s stealth technology was beginning to emerge. While most assume that the B-2, and indeed the F-117 which we’ve already done a video on here on Megaprojects, are completely invisible, that’s not quite the case. Their design severely limits the ability of enemy radar to track them, but they certainly aren’t completely invisible.
In 1975 two separate companies were awarded contracts to begin developing this stealth technology. Lockheed was a little faster out of the gate and went on to design the F-117, also known as the stealth fighter, while Northrop, who was already developing classified technology at Area-51, would eventually go on to build the B-2. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
By the late 1970’s it was becoming clear that a long-range strategic stealth bomber was not only a possibility but now within grasp. U.S President Jimmy Carter was facing a stern test ahead of the 1980 presidential election in which he would go head to head with Ronald Reagan. The challenger had repeatedly claimed Carter was weak on defence and perhaps to counteract some of this, the Carter administration announced in August 1980 that the U.S was indeed developing a stealth aircraft. It didn’t work, and Reagan won a landslide victory.
The Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) program was now a year into being, with two separate teams competing to build the world’s first stealth bomber – Northrop and Boeing on one side, Lockheed and Rockwell on the other. On 20th October 1981, the Northrop design was chosen, but a change in mission profile meant that the design was altered from a high-altitude bomber to a low-altitude terrain-following bomber. Just a small change, which added two years to the development and a massive $1 billion ($2.4 billion today) on to the eventual cost.
Black or Grey
The F-117 and the B-2 are often confused. They both carry a menacing futuristic appearance and roughly share the same style and shape, which at the time was what computer programs deemed to be the aptest for stealth flight.
The biggest difference, during development at least, was what kind of project it was. While the F-117 was considered a black project – the kind of shady secretive undertaking that only a handful of people truly know about – the B-2 was built as a grey project, meaning it was semi-secret, but much more widely known.
Those working on the B-2 were sworn to secrecy and required to undergo extensive background checks before they were allowed anywhere near the old Ford facility at Pico Rivera in California, which had been purchased and completely re-fitted to accommodate the B-2 development teams.
This was, of course, a time of heightened political espionage with just about everybody spying on everybody else. Two Northrop employees, nearly 25 years apart, were caught and tried for selling secrets to foreign countries. Thomas Cavanagh was arrested in 1984 for passing B-2 information to the Soviets and was only paroled in 2001, while Noshir Gowadia was apprehended in 2005 for selling secrets to China and is currently serving a 32-year sentence.
A Changed World
The B-2 made its first public appearance on 22nd November 1988 at the United States Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. The now-famous photo of the aircraft head-on revealed just how incredibly thin the new stealth bomber was, and though the media were not allowed to take photos of the rear of the aircraft, Aviation Week discovered that there was no flight restriction on the airspace above the base so they flew a plane over and managed to take a sneaky picture of what the Air Force was hiding – the suppressed engine exhausts, which reduces the exhaust temperature and so making it even more difficult to track – more on that a little later in the video.
So you can probably imagine everybody was pretty satisfied with what they saw, despite the massive amount of money that had gone into development. By 1989, $23 billion ($48.2 billion today) had been spent on research and development alone. According to the General Accounting Office, the cost of each aircraft, including spare parts and software support was $929 million ($1.5 billion today). It was a huge amount of money to be spending, but as long as it kept the dreaded Soviets at bay that was all that mattered.
And this is where things began to change. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the need for these aircraft was immediately called into question. In the mid-’80s, 132 B-2s had been ordered, a number which quickly came down to 75 before the end of the decade. In 1992, as the world faced up to a very different situation, President Bush announced that the number of B-2s would be limited to just 20. The Clinton administration which followed authorised that a final B-2 that had been a prototype model be added. And that’s where things remained. Nineteen of the aircraft were named after states, preceded by “Spirit of……” and the two exceptions are the Spirit of America and the Spirit of Kitty Hawk, named after Kitty Hawk, South Carolina where the Wright Brothers made their first controlled flight in 1903.
First things first, it’s a real beauty. The famed triangular shape is based on a Northrop aircraft that was trialled in the 1950s, the YB-49 and the two also have the same wingspan of 52.4 metres (172 ft). Much of the B-2 is made of a carbon-graphite composite material which has the benefit of being stronger than steel, lighter than aluminium and excellent at deflecting radar.
And while we’re on the subject of radar, the B-2 has a reported radar cross-section (RCS) of about 0.1 m2 (1.1 sq ft) – making it about as stealthy as you are going to get. Interestingly – and apologies for the vagueness in advance – the B-2 does not always operate at the same stealth mode. Apparently, a “stealth-up” mode can be activated as the aircraft nears its target. Alas, that is a piece of information, like much on the B-2, which remains highly classified.
The shape of the B-2 is based on the infinite flat plate shape, which is generally considered the ideal design for a stealth aircraft. If you look closely you will see that it is composed of multiple curves and rounded surfaces that merge to form a single beautiful, yet deadly shape. This technique is known as continuous curvature and was only made possible by advancements in computational fluid dynamics in the mid to late 1980s.
But the shape is only one of several aspects that contributes to the B-2s stealth. It also comes with reduced acoustic, infrared and visual capabilities which combine to create a multi-spectral camouflage effect (where an object is disguised to evade detection in a number of ways). As I mentioned earlier, the exhaust is a little different and doesn’t use afterburners which would increase the infrared signature as well as the chances of it being heard or seen from the ground. The
4 General Electric F118-GE-100 engines, with 17,300 lbf thrust each, are buried deep within the fuselage which reduces the infrared signature even further. And if you think that colour is just by chance think again. The dark grey anti-reflective paint is designed to blend into the sky making it difficult to spot with the human eye.
The aircraft comes with a crew of two, with the pilot in the left seat and mission commander in the right. There is the option to include a third crew member but as far as we know this is rarely done. As we’re just coming to, some of the missions that the B-2s have taken part in have pushed the 40-hour mark and with this in mind, the B-2 is highly automated and has a toilet and even cooking facilities onboard.
The B-2 is 21 metres (69ft) in length and has an empty take-off weight 71,700 kg (158,000 lb) – which is almost exactly the same weight as the Space Shuttle Endeavour. You might be surprised to hear that it’s not a particularly fast aircraft – if you remember there are no afterburners in the engines – and it has a top speed of just 1,010 km/h (630 mph) – making it roughly seven times slower than the absolute rocket that is U.S X-15 fighter jet.
So we know that it’s difficult to spot, but what exactly can it rain down on the unsuspecting targets below? Firstly, the aircraft comes with absolutely no defensive firepower but can carry 18,000 kg (40,000 lb) of ordnance spread over two bomb bays. During its development, it was thought the B-2 would carry nuclear weapons, but that has been expanded to include precision strikes, and along with the B61 and B83 nuclear bombs it can carry AGM-129 ACM cruise missiles, CBU-87 Combined Effects Munitions, GATOR mines (anti-tank weaponry), and the CBU-97 Sensor Fuzed Weapon (cluster bombs) among many others. In short, it’s a very versatile killer.
To give you some numbers of exactly how many bombs it can carry, the B-2 can support 16 nuclear bombs, thirty-six 340 kg (750 lb) CBU class bombs or a massive eighty 226 kg (500 lb) class bombs, such as the Mk-82 or GBU-38.
The B-2 made its debut on the world stage during the Kosovo War in 1999, in which the U.S claimed it had been responsible for destroying 33% of Serbian targets over 2 months. In total, NATO flew 34,000 missions during the war with the B-2s only taking part in 50 of them – however, and to give you a good idea of just how much they can carry, they were responsible for 11% of the ordnance that fell to Earth.
The Balkan conflict also saw the first of some true marathon flights, with 6 aircraft making their way from their base in Missouri to Yugalsvia – a trip of a truly ass-numbing 30 hours.
But that was nothing compared to one mission in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom when a B-2 completed a 44-hour journey from the U.S to Afghanistan and back. They have also seen combat in both Iraq and most recently in Libya first during the last days of Muammar al-Gaddafi, then in 2018 when two B-2s attacked an ISIS training camp, dropping a whopping one hundred and eight 226 kg (500 lb) precision-guided joint direct attack munition bombs, killing 85 militants.
During combat operations, no B-2 has ever been lost to enemy fire, but one did crash in 2008 shortly after take-off. Both the pilot and commander were able to eject safely and the cause of the accident was later found to have been a build-up of moisture in the aircraft’s Port Transducer Units – which measure air temperature before feeding the information to the flight computer.
The B-1 Raider – The New Generation
As I mentioned right at the start of the video, these aircraft have now reached the ripe old age of 31. And while in human terms this might not be considered particularly ancient, in military terms this is getting on a bit.
It’s often not that aircraft, or indeed any piece of military equipment, is suddenly of no use, but the speed of which technology develops is truly extraordinary. That being said, don’t expect to be saying goodbye to the B-2 anytime soon. To give you an idea of the projected longevity, the U.S Air Force originally stated the B-2s would be used until 2058 – which would have had them pushing 70 – but a recent budget has stated that they will be retired no later than 2032.
And that just might be because there is a new aircraft on the block – or at least on the road to the block. We don’t know a whole lot about the B-1 Raider, no pictures exist and very little information has been released except that we should expect it to enter service around 2025. The only artist rendering that has been released shows a similar design to the B-2, but with a certain 21st Century dash of cool to it. Watch this space.
The Ghost Rides
The B-2 is unquestionably both one of the most technologically advanced aircraft on the planet, and one of the most iconic. It has come to symbolise American might and prestige and often appears at aircraft shows or performing a flyby at major events.
Had the Cold War ended a little earlier this aircraft may never have even been built. The mammoth costs associated with it were high, but at least worthy to counter the threat of the Soviet Union. With their biggest rival out of the way, it didn’t take long for the numbers of the anticipated B-2 fleet to be slashed. It is an astonishing aircraft, but with the program costing an eye-watering $72 billion, which has been adjusted for inflation, it’s not difficult to see how a series of administrations have veered away from it.
But forget the money. This is an aircraft, along with its cousin the F-117, that has completely transformed the world of strategic bombing. And whatsmore, there is so much of its technology that remains classified which we will probably never know – it is the ultimate elusive spectre. A true wonder of the skies – a futuristic, dark grey ghost.