PM climbs inside a B-2 stealth bomber for a rare view of a training mission and insight into the future of the US Air Force’s next long-range strike aircraft. With billions of dollars already committed, the question is: what missions should this warplane be prepared to do? By Joe Pappalardo; Renders by Souverein
America’s airspace is crossed with invisible tracks, lanes with designated entrance and exit points that warplanes use for aerial refuelling. Our track is No 16, heading east. I’m sitting next to pilot Captain Timothy “Scar” Sullivan inside the cockpit of a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, 8 200 metres over mid-Missouri. We’re en route to meet the KC-135 Stratotankers that will top off our fuel tanks in a 725 km/h hook-up. “In six minutes, we’ll see tankers,” Scar says through the headphones in my helmet; without an intercom, his words would be drowned out by the whine of the engines of the bomber, the Spirit of Georgia.
Nearly as many people have been to space as have flown in a B-2. More than 530 people have travelled off -planet; as of my flight in late 2012, only 543 people have been airborne in the cockpit of a Spirit. Upon landing, I’ll become No 544.
The cockpit of a stealth bomber is built for two pilots, sitting side by side. The dashboard’s digital graphics were state-of-the-art in the 1980s, when Northrop Grumman designed the aircraft. There’s a crude toilet – a stainless-steel bowl, no walls or dividers – behind the right seat, not too far from a bank of classified communications servers.
Also behind the two seats is a 1,8 m flat space where pilots can set up a cot to sleep, although many just stretch out on the floor. Missions in the B-2 often stretch into double-digit flight hours. “I can fall right to sleep anywhere,” Scar says. “Except, for some reason, the cockpit of a B-2.”
At a distance of 16 km, the 41,4 m-long Stratotankers are just specks. The outlines of the aircraft, operated by the National Guard’s 128th Air Refuelling Wing, become more distinct as we close. What follows is a co-ordinated dance routine. The aircraft in need of fuel flies directly behind and just below the tanker. The KC-135 extends a telescoping fuelling boom; the fuel nozzle at the end fits into a small hole in the receiving bomber. The fuel pumps as the conjoined aircraft fly in harmony.
This seemed like a rational plan when I heard it during the pre-flight briefing. But as we creep closer, the KC-135 looming through the windshield, the whole operation reveals itself to be crazy. There is something totally illogical about edging to within 3,5 m of another aircraft and then holding that position for minute after minute. It makes your brain freeze up.
I can see every slight adjustment as Scar steadies the Spirit of Georgia, edging to within spitting distance of the Stratotanker. The face of the boom operator is staring at us from a small window in the rear of the KC-135. Happily, the air gets less choppy as we close the gap. We’re near enough for the B-2 to share the bubble of displaced air, the bow wave, that envelops the Stratotanker.
The B-2’s fuel port is on top of the fuselage, so Scar can’t tell how close the boom is to the bomber’s receptacle. He’s watching lights under the tanker plane’s fuselage that tell him in which direction to move. The frame of the windows is another indicator – he knows what the correct position looks like from his vantage point. Once the connection is made, a dashboard screen says latch and thousands of litres of fuel flow.
The B-2 can fly more than 9 500 km on a full tank, but a trip from Missouri to the Middle East still requires several aerial refuels each way. I ask Scar what they do when they have to connect to tankers in turbulence or foul weather. “We just have to do it,” he says, with more resignation than bravado. “I mean, we need the gas.”
The B-2 is rightly regarded as the most advanced bomber in the world, but there is plenty of room for improvement. I ask Scar over the cockpit headset what he’d like to see in a new bomber. “Longer legs,” he says. “More time between refuelling.”
New engines and lighter materials could give future pilots the extended range Scar is seeking – but that kind of retrofit can’t easily be installed in the B-2’s old bones. The cat-and-mouse world of military aviation never stands still, and the B-2 is not getting any younger.
Once and future bomber
No one knows more about operating a stealth-bomber fleet than the personnel at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, which makes them de facto experts on the future of long-range strike aircraft. The topic is not hypothetical: last year, the Obama administration budgeted more than R53 billion through to 2017 for the development of new long-range strike aircraft. The effort to build America’s next stealth bomber, due for delivery around 2025, has already begun.
It seems odd that the Pentagon is launching an expensive project to build a new stealth warplane as the federal government grapples with defence budget cuts. Air Force leadership concedes that dwindling funds will certainly delay the new aircraft, but it is standing by its intention to move forward. “Long term, we’re committed to the long-range strike bomber,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said early this year. A R53 billion investment might seem like a lot, but experienced aerospace analysts such as Richard Aboulafia, vice-president at Teal Group, say it won’t get programme too far. “Somehow, we have to have the sustained strategic need and political will to shell out $120 billion (about R1 trillion) over a dozen years,” he says. “It’s $50 billion just for showing up. And that’s for a prototype or two.”
But such incremental funding is a popular Pentagon strategy for advancing expensive programmes. “You start funding a research and development programme, but you don’t move forward too aggressively,” Aboulafia says. “You fund it a billion or two a year so that you can get a running start as the strategic situation evolves.”
As the war in Afghanistan winds down, America is indeed shifting its strategic posture. Instead of preparing for immediate conflict against low-tech enemies like insurgents, the Pentagon is again focusing on facing nation-states with sophisticated hardware. Strategists call these enemies peer or near-peer adversaries. The Obama administration announced in 2011 that the Pentagon would focus more attention on Asia, a “pivot to the Pacific” that pits US strategy against China, the most potent near-peer adversary in the world.
This strategic shift breathed new life into the stealth bomber programme, which Secretary of Defence Robert Gates cancelled in 2009. A long-range strike bomber can take off far outside the range of China’s cruise and ballistic missiles, and a stealthy one can defeat that nation’s increasingly advanced radar and anti-aircraft weapons (see “The Stealth War,” November 2012 issue). Also, a bomber can fly home to re-arm in less time than it takes a submarine or surface vessel to return to port to reload, making it more useful in long military campaigns.
The struggle between China’s (and others’) air-defence weaponeers and the US Air Force is fought in aircraft hangars. To the untrained eye, the surface of a B-2 looks black. But Staff Sgt Jesse Phillips, a young airman who has spent his whole career on B-2 maintenance at Whiteman, sees a complex pattern. Some materials absorb radar waves, while others are designed to direct the returns across the fuselage and towards the back of the jet so the enemy sees no signal.
“We are in constant contact with engineers at Tinker Air Force Base (home of a major air logistics centre in Oklahoma) to get new procedures or changes in tech data,” Phillips says. “We have to be one step ahead since someone is always trying to defeat our radar-beating capabilities.” The longer the B-2 remains in the fleet, the harder it will be for Phillips to stay ahead of an opponent.
The peer-adversary rationale for a new bomber is lost on many critics, especially among the disarmament community. William Hartung, director, Arms and Security Project at the Centre for International Policy, summed up many detractors’ attitudes in February when he called for “eliminating or scaling back projects, like a new nuclear bomber… whose capabilities are better attuned to cold war”.
The risk of an overwhelming, surprise nuclear missile attack is now almost zero, making a nuclear-capable bomber less of a priority. However, having nukes at the ready could prevent a conventional war from escalating, says Eli Jacobs, a programme co-ordinator for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “The side that is losing may feel compelled to initiate limited nuclear strikes in order to terminate the conflict,” he wrote on CSIS’s Web site in 2012. Having a nuclear retaliation at the ready makes this catastrophic choice less likely, he argues.
But the key demand of America’s new bomber is not an ability to drop nukes, but the delivery of other weapons. The Air Force indicated this priority last year when officials announced that the new aircraft would first be readied for non-nuclear missions. In contrast, the Pentagon readied the B-2 for nuclear bombs years before conventional munitions.
Brigadier-General Thomas Bussiere, commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman, knows his fleet of 20 aircraft is the tool of choice to influence – that is, threaten – rogue regimes. “I would venture to say that B-2s keep a lot of people awake at night,” he says.
B-2 pilots don’t drop ordnance with bombsights and trigger pulls, but with buttons and keystrokes. The bomber calculates the time of release at the particular airspeed and automatically opens the bomb-bay doors to release the weapons from either a rotary launcher or a bomb rack. Published reports say the B-2 can deliver 80 unguided bombs to within 150 m of their target. The B-2 can also carry up to 16 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, 900 kg bombs converted into guided weapons by adding strakes and fins that adjust the weapons’ course. Explosive bolts detonate during a JDAM release. “You can feel the jet punch them out,” Scar says.
The B-2’s abilities were on display during the one-night attack on Libya in March 2011. “We struck 45 of the 48 planned targets with precision munitions,” Lt-General James Kowalski, head of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, tells PM. “The targets were all hardened aircraft shelters. And that’s where (Muammar) Gaddafi found out that his shelters were not hardened and they weren’t really shelters.”
There’s a button on the B-2 console, just larger than a laptop key, that says pen. It stands for Penetration. When a B-2 pilot pushes it, the aircraft readies itself to enter defended airspace by retracting protruding antennas, restricting communications emissions and reducing other telltales of the bomber’s presence.
Being a stealth warplane means more than having the right shape and radar-baffling materials. It’s also a strategy. For example, the B-2 can be more easily spotted on radar from the sides but is a lot harder to detect head-on. So B-2 pilots plan an attack that keeps the angles in their favour, and that means jagged flight paths. Scar calls this spike management.
The lesson is clear: no aircraft is truly invisible on a radar screen, so the less time spent in defended airspace, the better. But the B-2 isn’t capable of great bursts of speed. The next stealth bombers will have engines that operate in two modes: one for fuel economy and another for high-speed acceleration. (See “Inside the future engine”.)
While in the air, Scar demonstrates how the B-2 can capture an image of the ground below by reflecting a radar pulse off the ground. When I say that this ability makes the bomber a de facto reconnaissance aircraft, he shoots me a disgusted look. I’ve hit the nerve of a larger issue.
A bomber that can defeat enemy radar, Pentagon planners reason, could also loiter in hostile airspace and gather video, intercept communications and serve as a radio relay for troops below. But this idea is inherently distasteful to the airmen of Whiteman. When I ask Scar what he thinks about using the future bomber to collect intelligence, he offers a politely sceptical question about Air Force planners: “Do they want a jack-of-all trades, master of none?”
It’s a great question – and the Pentagon has not come up with the answer. “That remains classified,” says Kowalski. “And some of that, frankly, is not quite fleshed out yet.”
Spirit 544 on the stick
Out of nowhere, Scar asks me over the intercom, “Ready to fly?” I hesitate before saying yes. There’s a second B-2 flying formation with us and looking like a flying saucer as it slices through clouds a scant 6 km ahead. With some exceptionally bad luck, I could endanger one-tenth of America’s long-range strike fleet and cause a subtle but real rebalance of global military power. It’s a reminder of the vital national security niche these warplanes fill, and the high stakes involved in creating their replacement.
But Scar isn’t worried. The B-2 pilot has confidence in his ability to recover from anything I can possibly do at this altitude. He’s also rated as an instructor, so he’s one of the few in the Air Force trained to operate the B-2 Spirit alone.
“Okay, you have the jet,” he says, relinquishing control. I place one suddenly damp left hand on the throttle and the right on the stick. “Take her to the other side,” Scar says, wanting me to steer the Spirit of Georgia so it crosses behind the leading B-2.
I gingerly push the stick left and the horizon tilts. “You can be more aggressive,” the pilot says. “You’re not gonna break her.” This time, I push the stick firmly and the bomber casually edges left. Manoeuvres in an aircraft built for endurance happen slowly and deliberately. The Spirit of Georgia is responsive and has a top speed of over 950 km/h, but it’s not what you’d call peppy.
We smoothly swing behind the other B-2. The turn complete, I straighten the Spirit so it’s flying even with the horizon and increase speed to catch up with the other bomber. My adrenaline levels off. For this fleeting moment, it’s true. I have the jet.
What experts are saying about the next-generation bomber:
Shun specialty parts
Mechanics at Whiteman Air Force Base gripe about the lack of suppliers for aircraft parts – some small firms went out of business 15 years before their parts needed replacing. “Design the system for long-term sustainability,” says one B-2 munitions officer. “Don’t build anything one-off for the airplane; this is one of the curses of the B-2.”
Um, drop tanks?
Dangling disposable fuel tanks from a stealth aircraft is seen as heresy because their shapes on the aircraft’s exterior can be seen on radar. However, former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne recently proposed the idea, observing that most of a bomber’s flight is spent in uncontested airspace. When the fuel is gone, the aircraft can jettison the empty tanks and restore its stealthy profile, then refuel only on the way home.
Bombers won’t just carry bombs
The next bomber will accommodate exotic weaponry such as directed energy beams, advanced decoys and computer viruses. “A platform with terrific penetrating capability and wonderful avionics, from a cyber-warfare standpoint, is a fantastic asset,” says aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group.
Evolution of a flying wing:
Test pilot Max Stanley flies the XB-35, the distant grandfather of the B-2. It will take decades of engineering progress before flying wings are stable enough to fly in combat.
Northrop Grumman wins a contract to research a flying-wing bomber.
The Tacit Blue test aircraft begins flights. The US Air Force uses the data it generates to shape the B-2.
The B-2 flies for the first time in the skies of California.
The Air Force announces the B-2 is ready to drop conventional bombs.
A pair of Spirit bombers strike Yugoslavia with satellite-guided bombs in the B-2’s combat debut.
B-2s bomb Afghanistan, the first response to the 9/11 attacks on the US.
B-2 stealth bombers open the “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq, hitting the correct targets with 900 kg bombs but failing to kill Saddam Hussein.
The Air Force declares its intention to field a new bomber in 2018.
A B-2 crashes without fatalities in Guam after its airspeed sensors are befuddled by moisture. Says Technical Sgt Thomas Anderson: “For us, it was like when Kennedy was shot.”
Secretary of Defence Robert Gates cancels the 2018 bomber.
Three B-2s from Missouri wipe out Libya’s air force on the ground in one evening.
The Obama administration in its 2013 budget requests R56 billion to develop a new bomber, ready in 2025.
The Pentagon confirms the B-2 can carry the GBU-57, a 13 000 kg bomb that explodes after penetrating 60 metres of concrete
Inside the future engine:
B-2 pilot Captain Timothy “Scar” Sullivan wants the next-generation bomber to have better fuel economy. Major engine makers such as Pratt & Whitney and GE Aviation are working on variable-cycle engines now. “They’re going to be much more adaptive, meaning that they can reconfigure themselves in flight,” says Jimmy Reed, P&W’s director of advanced programmes. To dash, the engine routes air (green) from its turbofan to an outer-shell turbojet, which provides high thrust but is efficient only at high speeds.
GE developed ceramic-matrix composites for use in the hottest sections of its engines,
including high- and low-pressure turbine vanes and blades. An engine that can handle hotter air (orange) can produce more thrust.
A little vectored thrust can go a long way. Wiggling an engine even a few degrees can help sharpen turns and improve performance. All major military-engine makers now connect aircraft engines with flight-control computers, which automatically adjust the exhaust nozzle’s direction based on pilot input.
Modern turbofan engines have two airstreams, core and bypass. An Air Force programme developed a design with a third stream of air (blue) that can be routed into the core for extra thrust or to help dilute hot exhaust with cool air to obscure the plane’s thermal signature.