B-2 Spirit

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A USAF B-2 Spirit in flight.

Type Stealth bomber
Manufacturer Northrop Grumman
Maiden flight 1989-07-17
Introduced April 1997
Status Active service
Primary user United States Air Force
Number built 21
Unit cost US$1.157-$2.2 billion in 1998

The B-2 Spirit, made by Northrop Grumman, is an multi-role stealth aircraft able to drop conventional and nuclear weapons. The bomber was a milestone in the bomber modernization program of the United States. The B-2 is the most expensive plane ever built: estimates for the costs per plane range from 1.157 billion [1] to 2.2 billion US dollars.[2] Its stealth technology is intended to help the craft penetrate defenses previously impenetrable by combat aircraft. The original procurement of 135 aircraft was later reduced to 75 in the late 1980s. In his 1992 State of the Union address, President George H.W. Bush announced total B-2 production would be limited to 20 aircraft (later increased to 21 by refurbishing a test aircraft).


This B-2 has just disengaged from aerial refueling over the Pacific Ocean. Inflight refueling capability gives the B-2 a range limited only by engine lubrication and crew endurance.

With the B-52 Stratofortress and B-1 Lancer, the U.S. military claims that the B-2 provides the versatility inherent in manned bombers. Its low-observable, or “stealth,” characteristics give it the ability to penetrate an enemy’s most sophisticated defenses and attack its most heavily defended targets.

The blending of low-observable technologies with high aerodynamic efficiency and large payload gives the B-2 significant advantages over previous bombers. Its traveling range is approximately 6,000 nautical miles (11,100 km) without refueling. Also, its low-observation ability provides the B-2 greater freedom of action at high altitudes, thus increasing its range and a better field of view for the aircraft’s sensors. With its GPS Aided Targeting System (GATS) combined with GPS-aided bombs such as Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), it can use its APQ-181 radar to correct GPS errors of targets and gain much better than laser-guided weapon accuracy with “dumb” gravity bombs with a GPS-aided “smart” guidance tail kit attached. It can bomb 16 targets in a single pass.

This B-2 has just disengaged from aerial refueling over the Pacific Ocean. Inflight refueling capability gives the B-2 a range limited only by engine lubrication and crew endurance.

This B-2 has just disengaged from aerial refueling over the Pacific Ocean. Inflight refueling capability gives the B-2 a range limited only by engine lubrication and crew endurance.

The B-2’s stealth comes from a combination of reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual and radar signatures, making it difficult for defences to detect, track and engage. Many aspects of the low-observability process remain classified; however, the B-2’s composite materials, special coatings and flying wing design contribute to its stealth abilities.

The B-2 has a crew of two, a pilot in the left seat and mission commander in the right, compared to the B-1B’s crew of four and the B-52’s crew of five.

Operational history

The B-2 started life as a black project known as the High Altitude Penetrating Bomber (HAPB), then became the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) and used the project code word Senior Cejay. It later became the B-2 Spirit. An estimated 23 billion US dollars were secretly spent for research and development on the B-2 in the 1980s. An additional expense was caused by changing its role in 1985 from a high-altitude bomber to a low-altitude bomber, which required a major redesign. Because the development of the B-2 was one of the best kept secrets of all USAF programs, there was no opportunity for public criticism of its massive cost during development. The first B-2 was publicly displayed on November 22, 1988, when it was rolled out of its hangar at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, where it was built. Its first flight was on July 17, 1989. The B-2 Combined Test Force, Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California, is responsible for flight testing the engineering, manufacturing and development aircraft.

The first aircraft, named Spirit of Missouri, was delivered on December 17, 1993. Depot maintenance responsibility for the B-2 is held by United States Air Force contractor support and is managed at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

B-2 in flight

B-2 in flight

The prime contractor, responsible for overall system design and integration, is Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems Sector. Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon), General Electric Aircraft Engines and Vought Aircraft Industries, are members of the aircraft contractor team. Another contractor, responsible for aircrew training devices (weapon system trainer and mission trainer) is Link Simulation & Training, a division of L-3 Communications formerly Hughes Training Inc. (HTI).[3] Link Division, formerly known as CAE – Link Flight Simulation Corp. Link Simulation & Training is responsible for developing and integrating all aircrew and maintenance training programs. The military contractors for the B-2 engaged in massive lobbying campaigns to gain Congressional support for its funding.

Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri was the B-2’s only operational base until early 2003, when facilities for the B-2 were built on the joint U.S./U.K. military base on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, followed by deployment to Guam in 2005. Facilities for the aircraft have also been built at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, England in the United Kingdom.

Questions remain over the rising cost of the program: some writers have suggested that the huge cost may include costs for other black projects. The expense may also be partially explained by the small number of planes produced coupled with a large research overhead in the B-2 program.

These bombers were originally designed to drop nuclear weapons during the Cold War and support for them dwindled as military spending declined. In May of 1995, in a study commissioned by Congress, the Institute For Defense Analysis concluded that after the demise of the Soviet Union, there was no need for more B-2s.


This Spirit was photographed in 2004 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

This Spirit was photographed in 2004 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

The B-2 was derided by many as being too expensive to risk in combat. However, the aircraft has seen service in three separate campaigns.

Its debut was during the Kosovo War in 1999. The B-2 first introduced the satellite guided JDAM in combat use. Since then the aircraft has operated over Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The raids on Afghanistan saw a first for the aircraft. After flying bombing missions over Afghanistan, the aircraft landed at Diego Garcia, were refueled and had a crew change before another sortie. This was taken a step further during the Iraq campaign when B-2s were based at Diego Garcia.

Later missions to Iraq came from Whiteman AFB in Missouri. This resulted in missions lasting over 30 hours and one mission of over 50 hours. B-2 crews have been used to pioneer sleep cycle and drug research such as “Go pills” and “no-go pills” to improve crew performance on long flights.

The Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation 2003 Annual Report noted that the B-2’s serviceability for FY03 was still inadequate, mainly due to maintenance on the B-2’s Low Observable materials. It also noted that the Defensive Avionics suite also had shortcomings in warning of pop-up threats. Despite these problems the B-2 maintained high serviceability for Operation Iraqi Freedom, dropping 583 JDAMs during the war.

B-2 on display

B-2 Spirit display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

B-2 Spirit display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

Because of their cost, rarity, and combat value it is unlikely any B-2 will be placed on display in the near future (or anytime before airframe retirement). However, it was on temporary display at Tinker Air Force Base, Midwest City, OK in June of 2005. In 2004 the static test mock-up for the B-2 was placed on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. The mock-up had been used for structural testing, and at one point was tested to the point of destruction. The Museum’s restoration team spent over a year reassembling the fractured airframe, and patches can clearly be seen on the exterior of the airframe where fractured sections have been reattached. If this mock-up is eventually replaced with an actual B-2, then it will likely represent the world’s most expensive exhibit item.

The South Dakota Air & Space Museum located on the grounds of Ellsworth Air Force Base displays a 1/2-scale B-2 mockup built specifically for and by the museum itself.

A B-2 Spirit participated in the Air Force Memorial dedication ceremony on October 14, 2006. An article on CNN.com mistakenly identified the aircraft as an F-117 Nighthawk.

Units using the B-2

United States Air Force

  • 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base
    • 13th Bomb Squadron
    • 393d Bomb Squadron
    • 394th Combat Training Squadron
  • 53d Wing, Eglin Air Force Base
    • 72d Test and Evaluation Squadron, Whiteman Air Force Base
  • 57th Wing, Nellis Air Force Base
    • 325th Weapons Squadron, Whiteman Air Force Base
    • 715th Weapons Squadron inactivated

Specifications (B-2A block 30)

Orthographically projected diagram of the Northrop B-2 Spirit.

General characteristics

  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 69 ft (20.9 m)
  • Wingspan: 172 ft (52.12 m)
  • Height: 17 ft (5.1 m)
  • Wing area: 5,000 ft