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Did the U.S. Air Force Lose the B-2 Bomber’s Blueprints?

B-2 Bomber
The B-2's first public display in 1988 at Palmdale, California: in front of the B-2 is a star shape formed with five B-2 silhouettes

It seems that some of the Air Force’s B-2 Spirit stealth bomber parts may have gone missing. A notice on the U.S. federal contracting website reads as follows:

“This engineering effort is to reverse engineer the core of the B‐2 Load Heat Exchangers, develop disassembly process to remove defective cores, develop a stacking, vacuum brazing and welding process to manufacture new heat exchanger cores and to develop a welding process to install the new cores on existing B‐2 Load Heat Exchangers. The requirement includes reverse engineering the re‐core process for the B‐2 Load Heat Exchangers. The B‐2 Load Heat Exchanger (NSN 1660‐01‐350‐8209FW) uses air and Ethylene Glycol Water (EGW) liquid to produce cold air for the cooling system.”

Though the term “reverse engineer” is usually associated with Chinese or Russian work to steal technology from the United States, it seems that the Air Force may have to reverse engineer parts of their own equipment.

The why remains unclear. It could be that the blueprints related to this particular B-2 bomber component were misplaced, at least according to one recent article. As the last B-2 rolled off assembly lines in 2000, it could also be that the tooling needed to manufacture the B-2’s heat exchangers no longer exists. It may also be possible that the company that originally contracted to manufacture that part may no longer exist either.

In any case, it may matter less and less as time moves on. A huge change is already underway in the Air Force, a change that would see several bombers entering retirement as the flying branch’s new stealth bomber approaches its first flight and prepares to enter full production.

B-21

B-2 weapons loadout. Image: Creative Commons.

The Air Force recently retired the first 17 of their B-1B bombers, a Cold War-era bomber that was originally designed to penetrate Soviet air defense at low altitudes. Though the bomber’s low and fast flight profile was made moot by Soviet look-down radars before it even entered production, the bomber was nonetheless manufactured as no viable alternative existed to replaces some of the United States other aging bombers. Oddly enough, the B-1B Lancer bomber enjoyed a renaissance of sorts during the conflict in Afghanistan as a rapid-response close air support platform, able to aid troops on the ground at a moment’s notice.

The Air Force’s newest bomber, the B-21 Raider, will enter the skies sometime in the mid-to-late-2020s, and given that platform’s stealth advantage over the B-2, will likely take over the older stealth bomber’s role sometime around then. And at that point, it will be increasingly less important to have spare parts for the stealthy bird.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Caleb Larson
Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    E. Papandreas

    March 3, 2021 at 10:46 am

    Caleb, Not uncommon. The reason for reverse engineering a component is that the government didn’t have the rights to that part in the first place. The part could have been a Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) or a modification of an existing part that the original manufacturer owned the rights to and didn’t give them up when they supplied the part. The original manufacturer of the part may or may not be in business, or he may have long ago gotten rid of the tooling since it’s been 20 years ago that he last made the part. He may well have drawings and tooling and just want to be paid for his time and effort in restarting the manufacturing process for something that he knows they won’t make many of and the parts may be difficult to make or be expensive. The government may have gotten bids from the original manufacturer of the part and felt it was too expensive and are just looking for another less expensive source. This kind of thing happens all the time. It’s no big deal.

  2. Avatar

    Etee

    March 3, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    Begs the question, to which Chinese company were the blueprints lost to???

  3. Avatar

    Rando Dude

    March 3, 2021 at 12:32 pm

    This isn’t as crazy as you might think. This is very likely because the Air Force never paid for the engineering information when they contracted to have the piece originally made. This means that the contractor or subcontractor owns the blueprints and all other engineering information. The Air Force is likely having some type of issue with that contractor and is looking at trying to find other qualified vendors to make these parts at a lower cost. As they tried to save a little bit of money on the front end of the contracting process, they are now having to pay millions on the back end to reverse engineer the proven part and then have a set of blueprints and all of the rest of the engineering information. They try to save on their budgets in the initial years and then force the extra in the later years when they are over a barrel.

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