Thirty-one years after its first flight on July 17, 1989 the B-2 Spirit may meet its replacement next year – but the world’s only flying wing still has a global presence.
Capable of delivering a nuclear weapon and flying for 6,000 nautical miles (9,600km), the US Air Force’s Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirit stealth bomber demonstrated its ability to reach across the planet in June when it flew from Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB), Missouri, to the Arctic and back.
On the Arctic mission, the B-2 flew with Norwegian Lockheed Martin F-35As and, despite its 6,000nm range, the B-2 was refuelled by a Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker. The tanker was from the 100th Air Refueling Wing (ARW), which is based at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, England. The B-2 dwarfs the KC-135R and yet it is still stealthy. The flying wing has a span of 172ft (52.12m) compared to the Stratotanker’s substantially shorter 130ft (39.6m) wingspan. The B-2 has four General Electric F118-GE-100 non-afterburning turbofan engines, which enable it to fly at subsonic speeds to altitudes of up to 50,000ft (15,200m), carrying its two pilots and up to 40,000lb (18,140kg) of payload.
“Operations and engagements with our allies and partners, in the Arctic region and elsewhere, demonstrate and strengthen our shared commitment to global security and stability,” said United States Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, General Jeff Harrigian, at the time of the Arctic mission. Almost a year earlier, two B-2s flew with Royal Air Force (RAF) F-35B Lightnings. At the time, B-2s were deployed to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, England. The B-2 crews undertake training from RAF Fairford because it can be used as a forward operating base for the stealth bomber.
The B-2’s combat missions have seen it fly over Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and – in January 2017 – Libya. A pair of B-2s destroyed two training camps near the Libyan coastal city of Sirte, which belonged to so-called Islamic State. The B-2s used joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs), which are unguided bombs that have been converted into precision-guided smart munitions. The US Department of Defense estimates the Libya bombing killed more than 80 people. It was 13 years earlier that the B-2 completed its first-ever official combat deployment during the 2003 Iraq war. The B-2s flew 27 sorties from Whiteman AFB and another 22 from an unidentified forward operating base.
However, years before that in 1999, the B-2 was used to destroy 33% of Serbian targets during the first eight weeks of the NATO attack on Serb forces. The B-2s would fly non-stop from Whiteman AFB to attack the Serbian units in Kosovo, the largely Albanian province of the former Yugoslavia. Although a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk was lost during the attacks on the Serbians, no B-2 has been lost in combat. The B-2's composite materials, special coatings and flying-wing design all contribute to its stealth capabilities, allowing it to penetrate an enemy's sophisticated air defences and strike at heavily defended targets.
Despite the missions in Serbia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in the first half of 2003, the B-2 did not receive its full operational capability status until December of that year. More than 14 years after the B-2 was publicly displayed on November 22, 1988 and its first flight achieved on July 17, 1989, the B-2 became officially operational. The B-2’s replacement, the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, is expected to make its first flight in 2021 and enter service in the mid-2020s.
The Raider, which will also replace the Rockwell B-1B Lancer, will also be based at Whiteman; however, the first location for the B-21 is Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota. The USAF has stated that it will buy at least 100 Raiders and, as they arrive, the B-2s and B-1Bs will be retired. Both the Spirit and the Nighthawk were unveiled in the same month and year, November 1988. However, the F-117 was officially retired in 2008 and the B-2 is now facing the same fate, fading into the history of stealth as quietly as it has penetrated many nations’ airspaces.