And It Doesn't Melt In the Rain
B-2 Goes Public
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, MO.
As the nation's patchwork green heartland slips away beneath its signature bat-shaped body, the B-2 bomber slices through roiling winds to an altitude of 26,000 feet with the grace of a hawk riding a summer thermal.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Sunlight glints off its slate gray skin as the radar-eluding aircraft edges up toward the tail of a KC-10 fuel tanker. The B-2's massive172-foot wingspan pushes before it a huge "bow wave" of air that buffets the larger jet.
Latching onto the KC-10's refueling boom, the supersecret bomber quickly gulps hundreds of gallons of high-octane kerosene. Satiated in minutes, it unhooks, drops away, and banks out of sight at 460 miles per hour.
"Aerial refueling is probably the hardest part of flying the aircraft," says Capt. Eric Sanger, a B-2 pilot instructor. "But it's so aerodynamic, it's an easy aircraft to fly."
Back on Earth, the most expensive plane in history is having anything but a smooth ride.
Congress and the Clinton administration are locked in a fierce battle over whether to spend billions of dollars to add nine more B-2s to the current fleet of 21. Aside from a tight defense budget also at issue are hundreds of aerospace jobs and the strategic value of a cold-war-era weapon at a time when no nation is expected to present a serious threat to the United States military might for years to come.
The fight intensified last month after a government watchdog agency issued a report questioning whether the B-2 can retain its much-vaunted radar-eluding ability when operating in "extreme climates." The Government Accounting Office (GAO) study found that the bomber's rubber-like skin can be damaged by humidity or rain, degrading its stealthiness, and requires 124 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time.
The study also says some repairs cannot be made outside a climate-controlled shelter, denying the US for now the flexibility of basing the B-2 abroad. Furthermore, it raises the possibility that the price of the current 21 B-2s could exceed the $44.7 billion already spent.
"The B-2 is an A-1 flop," charges Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey.
While it backs on fiscal grounds the Clinton administration's opposition to building more B-2s, the Air Force insists that its bomber can operate in any kind of weather. Still, it has clearly been rattled by ridicule sparked by the GAO report, such as opponents holding "stealth" umbrellas over a mock-up of the aircraft on the steps of the Capitol.
"The aircraft is combat-ready," asserts Brig. Gen. Bruce Carlson, the Air Force's director of Global Power Programs. "We are meeting all the goals that we set."
Top-secret garbage collectors
With the B-2's credibility at stake, the Air Force has launched an all-out defense of the bomber. Last Friday, it gave reporters unprecedented access to a program that was once so closely guarded that even workers who collect refuse from the hangars at Whiteman Air Force Base required top-secret clearance.
This week, the Air Force was back on the defensive again in the wake of an F-117A fighter jet crash at an airshow near Baltimore. Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia wants Congress to pass legislation prohibiting the use of F-117A stealth fighters and B-2 stealth bombers at air shows. He says that stealth planes are too expensive to put at risk for such purposes. Air Force officials say the air shows are valuable for allowing Americans to see what they are paying for.
In its B-2 outreach effort, the Air Force took the extraordinary step of flying dozens of journalists from Washington to Whiteman on a KC-10 tanker plane. During the flight, they watched through the boom operator's window as a B-2 executed the risky midair refueling procedure.