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Near Kansas City, a stealthy Cold War bomber takes its place in new doomsday scenarios

A B-2 Spirit flies into position during a refueling mission over the North Atlantic Ocean.
Paul Villanueva II TSgt USAF
United States Air Force
A B-2 Spirit flies into position during a refueling mission over the North Atlantic Ocean.

B-2 stealth bombers stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base are relics of the last century. But the sub-sonic batwing planes give the U.S. Air Force the power to hit even the most heavily defended targets, anywhere in the world. And that capability seems a lot more important now than it did when B-2s were first deployed.

Military minds imagined the B-2 stealth bomber primarily as a doomsday weapon — a virtually unstoppable way to tote nuclear bombs and drop them on the Soviet Union.

But some 30 years ago, just as the massive bat-winged jet began to take flight, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the Cold War mostly thawed.

Yet in the years since, the Pentagon retooled the plane to carry conventional weapons. It quickly became the go-to vehicle for first-strike operations in conventional battles, first in the Balkans, then South Asia and the Middle East — sometimes from its home 60 miles east of Kansas City.

And with Russia invading Ukraine while China arms itself in superpower style, a plane conceived during the Carter administration maintains its place as a particular example of the U.S. military’s ability to confidently strike any target on the globe.

“It was one of the great marvels of the Cold War against the Soviet Union,” said Richard Aboulafia, the managing director at the consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory. “It was going to be one of those enabling weapons that would allow us to win the Cold War, except of course the Cold War ended.”

With tank columns moving from western Russia into Ukraine and Beijing muscling up as a military superpower, the new Cold War taking shape puts a new spotlight on the plane. The B-2’s home in western Missouri again could be a launching pad, and a target, if a dreaded world war broke out.

They may be hard to spot on radar, but chances are you’ve seen a B-2 bomber soaring over a stadium. Its top and bottom have smoothly undulating surfaces, yet its profile from below is all sharp angles. That distinctive shape, along with a delicate-but-radar-absorbing skin, makes it essentially invisible to an enemy.

So it can sneak past anti-aircraft defenses to open a belly capable of carrying a few giant bunker-busting bombs or dozens of smaller, satellite-guided precision munitions each dialed in on a different target. That’s why it played such a critical role in the early stages of bombing campaigns in Kosovo, Libya and Iraq.

“We could go to downtown Baghdad before anyone else could,” said Todd Berge, a former B-2 pilot and trainer who now works as a commercial pilot.

B-2 enroute to Utah Test Range for a 32 JDAM wep sep test.  F-16 chase with Mr. Don Weiss as pilot, Ms. Bobbi Garcia as photog. Date: Aug 14, 2003.
Bobbi Garcia
United States Air Force
B-2 enroute to Utah Test Range for a 32 JDAM wep sep test. F-16 chase with Mr. Don Weiss as pilot, Ms. Bobbi Garcia as photog. Date: Aug 14, 2003.

That firepower wasn’t cheap. Only 21 B-2s were built. That drove the cost up to $2.2 billion a copy. B-2s also cost something approaching $4 million a year just to maintain. It’s the most expensive plane in history.

It was a pricey weapon to risk against countries that couldn’t match the U.S. military on any front, and Aboulafia says the B-2 program faced stiff political headwinds in the 1990s.

“The idea of a major power like Russia today, or China today, being a serious threat to U.S. interests really was seen as decades out,” he said. “Unfortunately, decades out was correct. And here we are.”

Facing the possibility of what military planners call “peer-on-peer conflict” — think the Russians or Chinese — a bomber built for the Cold War suddenly feels is relevant once more.

Owen Cote, the associate director of the Security Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the decades-old stealth technology built into the B-2 still works.

“Stealth is an old technology now at this point,” he said. “But radar's even older and we’re still using radar to find aircraft.”

The design of the B-2s makes them hard to pick up on radar. In addition, they fly at high altitudes and typically take circuitous routes toward a target to further avoid detection from the ground. No B-2 has ever been shot down.

“In fact,” said Berge, the pilot, “we don’t even think that we’ve ever even been seen on radar.”

Stealth is not the whole story here. B-2s can fly more than 6,000 miles on a single fill-up and they can refuel several times by hooking up with tankers in the air before they need to land for maintenance. That means B-2s can hit anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world.

“You take my combat sortie, for example,” Berge said. “Flew 34.6 hours. Took off from Whiteman Air Force Base, me and another pilot, and flew all the way over Iraq, turned around and came back without stopping.”

Being able to fly so far also allows B-2s to take the long way around powerful radar systems that could detect them at a distance. Owen Cote says it’s the combination of range and stealth that makes the bomber so dangerous to high-value targets like missile defense systems.

“An aircraft like the B-2 can fly from England, probably unrefueled, and cover all of Western Europe and cover it in a way that would be devastating to those kinds of targets,” he said. “And there wouldn't be much Russia could do about it.”

B-2 wing above the United Kingdom.
Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan/1st Combat Camera Squadron
United States Air Force
B-2 wing above the United Kingdom.

Even with the advancement of long-range hypersonic missiles that travel at five times the speed of sound, military planners still see a place for bombers.

For one thing, those missiles are expensive even in the context of the Pentagon’s budget. Secondly, the B-2 can carry so much firepower in a single flight: 80 500-pound precision-guided bombs; or a mix of 500-pound and one-ton bombs; or two mammoth bunker-buster munitions that weigh in at 30,000 pounds capable of knocking out underground targets. And they can also carry nuclear weapons.

China is reportedly developing a stealth bomber to rival the B-2. Meanwhile, the U.S. is close to flying a second-generation long-range stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider. The Air Force expects to buy well over 100 B-21s. Whiteman will be one of three primary bases for the B-21, insuring a role for the base, and its status as a primary target in any major power conflict.

“It’s said to look an awful lot like a B-2, only with much more modern subsystems and technologies, and, of course, incorporating everything we learned about stealth combat aircraft designed for the past 30 years,” said Aboulafia, the aeronautics consultant. “That's going be a wonder weapon. The problem is it really won't come online until later in this decade.”

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.