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B-2s Turn Out Not To Be Solo Flyers

May 7, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ During the epic battles over buying the B-2 bomber, contractors and lawmakers marched on Capitol Hill with charts showing how a pair of the radar-evading planes could do the work of 55 conventional aircraft.

The sales pitch: only four B-2 crewmen put in harm’s way compared with as many as 116 in a standard bombing mission.

But in the real battle over Yugoslavia, it’s not working out that way. The B-2 is relying on the full contingent of support and escort aircraft _ and their crews _ just like its non-stealth cousins.

So was there some hype in the original pitch for the most expensive aircraft ever built, at $2 billion each?

``Just a tad,″ said military analyst Ken Allard, who teaches a course in defense technology at Georgetown University. ``This should not surprise you.″

Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy Barnidge Jr., the commander of the B-2 bomber force, said that in combat the stealth jet takes advantage of ``the support package that’s out there″ as an added measure of protection even though the extra planes may not be required.

Other advocates are quick to say that the B-2 has performed exceptionally well in Yugoslavia, accounting for a third of the targets that NATO aircraft have struck.

They’re just not doing it alone as advocates once predicted. As described by Barnidge, a minimum support fleet for a pair of B-2s on a bombing mission would include 14 aircraft and 85 crew members. Many times, the numbers can be much higher.

Flying a nonstop, 30-hour mission from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., to Yugoslavia and back involves four midair refuelings, two each way, and possibly more depending on the mission profile.

Typically, a pair of B-2s each carries 16 satellite-guided 2,000-pound bombs. The Air Force has six of the planes at Whiteman ready for duty; eventually the fleet will total 21 planes.

Once over the Balkans, the B-2s can link up with EA-6B Prowlers that can jam enemy radar systems in the off-chance they pick up a fleeting sign on their scopes of the bat-winged plane.

F-16 fighters armed with radar-seeking HARM missiles are also nearby during attack runs, able to destroy a ground radar station attempting to fix on a B-2. Should a Yugoslav fighter locate and challenge one of the bombers, F-15 fighters with air-to-air missiles can eliminate that threat. RC-135 Rivet Joint planes pick up enemy electronic communications, and AWACS radar planes to guide the B-2s safely through busy airspace to their targets.

Deployment of the B-2 in its first combat mission contrasts with the pitch trumpeted four years ago by the bomber’s advocates.

``The B-2′s large payload allows it to do the work of many smaller bomb-droppers, and its stealthy characteristics mean that B-2s do not need an armada of support aircraft,″ Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds the B-2 in Southern California, said in a 1995 pamphlet. The result, the company said, means ``putting fewer personnel at risk.″

This was an important argument to those who said the B-2′s $2 billion price tag _ nearly half the cost of an aircraft carrier _ made it a colossal extravagance. B-2 advocates called it unfair to compare the cost of the bomber to a $40 million fighter plane. The B-2 could do the work of many other aircraft, they said.

In more than 40 strike sorties over Yugoslavia, the B-2 has demonstrated its ability to do far more than conventional aircraft. According to Barnidge, the B-2 has dropped 500 precision-guided bombs, or more than 2 million pounds of ordnance, at night, in foul weather, against formidable air defenses all with ``zero collateral damage.″

``The jet’s performance really has exceeded all of our expectations,″ Barnidge said.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, whose district includes Whiteman, said the B-2 has flown 3 percent of the sorties but hit 33 percent of the targets.

The B-2 could fly into enemy territory unescorted, said retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner, who does consulting work for Northrop Grumman. But if the other planes are there, the B-2 might as well use them. Others agree.

``The way they’re doing it is the smart way to do it,″ said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the leading advocate for the B-2 in the House. ``Why wouldn’t you protect them, especially when you only have 21?″

Others see political as well as military factors. Erik Pages of Business Executives for National Security, a Washington-based defense policy group, cites a fear within the Pentagon of losing a plane billed as invulnerable.

``You can imagine what the political fallout would be if one of these were shot down,″ Pages said.

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