The B-2 Spirit joined the USAF in December 1993

Northrop B-2 Spirit

The USAF’s Legendary Stealth Bomber

Northrop B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber

The Northrop B-2 Spirit (‘Stealth Bomber’) is a unique contemporary combat aircraft. One third of United States Global Strike Command (along with the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress and numerous intercontinental ballistic missiles - ICBMs), the B-2 combines range, payload and low-observability into a formidable strategic strike package. Once through anti-aircraft defences, it can deliver payloads deep into enemy territory. Operated only by the US military, the Stealth Bomber has carried out numerous frontline missions – its design philosophy wholly validated, each time.

B-2 Origins

The Northrop B-2’s evolution began in the late 1970s. US defence officials were then becoming increasingly worried by modernised enemy air defense systems that could potentially render the USAF’s long-range bombers inventory obsolete. This concern sparked the idea of a next generation strategic type that could overcome these defences, engage targets and still get home. DARPA’s (the US Defense Research Project Agency’s) low observable aircraft developmental work was a key inspiration - so too, the YB-35 and YB-49: designer Jack Northrop’s radical post-WW2 flying wings.

September 1980 saw the USAF’s ATB (Advanced Technology Bomber) RFP (Request For Proposals) go out to Northrop/Boeing and Lockheed/Raytheon. 13 months later, in October 1981, Northrop secured the ATB contract. At that point, it was foreseen that some 120 ATBs would enter USAF service. In time – the USSR having collapsed and the US defense budget having received severe cuts – that figure would be slashed by 100.

B-2 Night Ops

B-2 First Flight

The prototype Northrop B-2 Spirit had its official roll-out on 22 November 1988. So as to maintain a certain level of secrecy, the aircraft was shown only from the front but aerial shots, depicting its rear sections – engines included – soon emerged. The first B-2 flight took place on 17 July 1989, with Northrop test pilot Bruce Hinds and USAF Colonel Richard Couch in its cockpit.

17 December 1993, the 90th anniversary of powered flight, saw USAF B-2 deliveries get underway. ‘Spirit of Missouri’ was the first B-2 to be handed-over. It – as with all Spirits that followed – became part of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri: the world’s only permanent, full-time B-2 base. Activated in April 1993, the 509th Bomb Wing comprises four squadrons: three bomb squadrons and a single training squadron.

USAF B-2 Fleet

Bar two examples – Spirit of America and Spirit of Kitty Hawk - all USAF Stealth Bombers are named after US states. The current USAF B-2 fleet thus comprises Spirit of Alaska, Spirit of Arizona, Spirit of California, Spirit of Florida, Spirit of Georgia, Spirit of Hawaii, Spirit of Indiana, Spirit of Louisiana, Spirit of Mississippi, Spirit of Missouri, Spirit of Nebraska, Spirit of New York, Spirit of Ohio, Spirit of Oklahoma, Spirit of Pennsylvania, Spirit of South Carolina, Spirit of Texas and Spirit of Washington.

The USAF B-2 fleet reached initial operational capability (IOC) status in April 2007. FOC – full operational capability – was attained in December 2003.

One former USAF Stealth Bomber fleet member, Spirit of Kansas, was written off during an accident on 23 February 2008. The aircraft crashed on take-off at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam. Its pilot and mission manager, both having ejected, survived. The B-2 crash – the only one of its kind to so far have occurred - was later attributed to technical issues.

B-2 Features

B-2 Capabilities

The B-2 Spirit has a top speed of 475 miles per hour (764 kilometres per hour) – well within the subsonic range. Its official maximum unrefuelled range is 6,000 nautical miles (6,905 miles – 11,113 kilometres). After a single air-to-air refuel, this range extends to 10,000 nautical miles (11,507 miles – 18,518 kilometres). These attributes give the B-2 a complete global reach and the ability to engage multiple targets within a single sortie: a game-changing scenario.

Two internal weapons bays have a maximum combined payload of 40,000 pounds. Thus, weapons can make up more than 10 per cent of the B-2’s 336,5000-pound maximum take-off weight. Both nuclear or conventional weapons – for example, 80 500 pound Mk82 JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) or 16 2,400 pound B83 nuclear bombs - can be carried.

B-2 Features

The B-2’s stealth characteristics arise from what the USAF terms ‘a combination of reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual and radar signatures.’ Much of what makes the B-2 ‘stealthy’ remains classified but extensive use of composite materials, radar-absorbing coatings and its overall profile all play a part. Its flying wing shape – with no actual fuselage or vertical tail – acts to reduce drag (weight distributed out across the aircraft boosts lift) and minimise its presence on enemy radar screens. While it has aerodynamic benefits, the flying wing is inherently unstable – a quality the B-2’s quadruplex fly-by-wire system counteracts.

B-2 Operations

B-2 Operations

Operation Allied Force – the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia – was the B-2 Spirit’s operational baptism of fire. Launched from Whiteman AFB, a pair of Stealth Bombers performed a 31-hour flight there and back, unleashing 32,000 JDAMs during the campaign’s opening hours. This mission alone set a new precedent as the first such sustained strike sortie started and ended on US soil but, from the B-2, there was much more to come. Operation Allied Force would ultimately see B-2s take out one-third of Serbian targets destroyed although, of all NATO flights staged, the Stealth Bombers had a less-than-one per cent share. Then came Operation Enduring Freedom. B-2s led the offensive - a 44-hour return flight between Missouri and Afghanistan making history once more.

Operation Iraqi Freedom followed. This time, B-2s were deployed to a forward operating base. From it, 22 sorties were flown, while a further 27 Iraqi Freedom missions were launched from Whiteman AFB. In all, some 1.5 million tonnes of ordnance were dropped. The most recent B-2 operation was Odyssey Dawn – the NATO-ordered Libyan no-fly zone reinforcement effort – in which three Spirits participated

B-2 Spirit Refuel

B-2 Upgrades

Northrop Grumman, its contractors and the USAF are right now working to keep the B-2 Spirit at the leading edge of modern day airpower. Communications is one vital area. To that end, the CVR Increment 1 programme is changing the way deployment commands are received. Right now, they’re relayed via satellite. In the future – potentially from 2017 onwards – they’ll instead be transmitted ‘more reliably’, to quote the official line. Digitised nuclear weapons, a new flight management control processor and a modernised Defensive Management System – helping the B-2 keep pace and overtake the latest in air defence systems – will all help sustain the Spirit’s operational career. As a result, current forecasting sees this remarkable and very enigmatic aircraft serving on into the late 2050s.

Role: Strategic stealth bomber
Length: 69 ft 0 in (21.0 m)
Wing span: 172 ft 0 in (52.4 m)
Engines: Four General Electric F118-GE110 turbofans, producing 19,000 pounds thrust each
Maximum speed: 475 mph (764 km/h)
Maximum range: 6,905 miles (11,113 km)
Maximum height:  50,000 ft (15,240 m)
Crew: 2 (pilot, mission commander) 
Weapons: AGM-154 JSOWs, GBU-28 laser-guided bombs, GBU-57A/B MOP bombs
First flown:

17 July 1989

All B-2 Stealth Bomber images copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

B-2 air-to-air refuel footage courtesy USAF

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