Arguably the world’s most distinctive aircraft, the B-2 Spirit, is a flying-wing heavy stealth bomber. In fact, the B-2 is the world’s only operational stealth bomber. And with a total program cost of $2.13 billion per aircraft, the B-2 is also the world’s most expensive aircraft.
Product of the Cold War
The Spirit was designed during the Cold War’s climax, under the Carter administration’s “Advanced Technology Bomber” project, for the purpose of penetrating increasingly-sophisticated Soviet air defenses and striking high value targets. To bypass the sensitive and deadly Soviet air defenses, the B-2 was designed around stealth technology, allowing the bomber to penetrate contested airspace, undetected. The B-2, with its low observability, is capable of deploying both conventional and thermonuclear weapons.
The program’s remarkable costs were palatable during the Cold War, when the B-2 was first designed and ordered. Initially, 132 bombers were expected to be built, giving the US ample resources to penetrate Soviet airspace. Yet, the fall of the Soviet Union – which occurred just two years after the B-2’s first flight in 1989 and over half a decade before the B-2’s introduction in 1997 – left the B-2 without its primary purpose.
During the 1992 State of the Union Address, President George H. W. Bush announced that B-2 production would be slashed to just 20 aircraft – less than one-sixth of the original 132 aircraft projection. With the Cold War concluded, tax payers – and Congress – were no longer willing to cover the bill for an expansive B-2 program. Actually, the cost of the B-2s was so exorbitant, they became something of a public controversy.
Congress’s General Accounting Office (GAO) stated in 1996 that the B-2 “will be, by far, the most costly bombers to operate on a per aircraft basis.” The B-2 would cost three times as much as the B-1 and over four times as much as the B-52. Further compounding expense issues was the B-2’s maintenance requirements. For each hour of flight time, the B-2 required 119 hours of maintenance. By comparison, the B-1 needed 60 hours, while the B-52 required just 53. B-2 costs were further increased with the need for specialized hangars, which were big enough to accommodate the B-2’s 172 foot wingspan, and could be kept cool enough to accommodate the B-2’s heat-sensitive stealth “skin.”
The Tab Was Not So Stealthy
All in all, the B-2 costs roughly $135,000 per hour of flight time – double the cost of either the B-1 or B-52. The runaway bill, for an aircraft without many purposes, had become unacceptable in light of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The Spirit wasn’t the only weapons system that looked good to budget planners in the free-wheeling 1980s, but caused ire in the Soviet-less 1990s. The Seawolf-class submarine suffered a similar fate. Designed in the 80s as a successor to the Los Angeles-class sub, the Seawolf is a nuclear-powered fast attack sub. Initially, the U.S. Navy was slated to receive 29 Seawolf subs. Intended to counter the threat of Soviet ballistic missile submarines such as the Typhoon and Akula classes, the Seawolf-class was bigger, faster, quieter – and more expensive – than its predecessor. At $3 billion per unit, the Seawolf is the U.S. Navy’s most expensive fast attack submarine ever built. When the Soviet Union fell, public willingness to cover the Seawolf bill diminished. The original 29 sub fleet was slashed significantly.
Only three Seawolf subs were ever built. They remain in service today, serving – like the B-2 – as a reminder of how abruptly the Cold War ended.
Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.