On July 17, 1989, the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber first took to the skies. Thirty-four years have gone by, but the formidable airframe continues to serve as a key component of America’s long-range strike arsenal.
The platform’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, released a statement this week proudly asserting that “three decades later, the iconic flying wing is more advanced than ever and in a class of its own.” The statement added that by “morphing with the times, the B-2’s avionics technology, stealth, and armament have evolved to ensure U.S. air dominance.”
The heavy strategic bomber designed to penetrate enemy anti-aircraft defenses may be old. But the Air Force continues to pour resources into the platform to ensure it stays relevant and capable.
The Origin Story of the B-2
The concept of stealth airframes dates back to the 1970s, when aircraft engineers discovered a method to avoid interceptors and missiles. The military wanted an airframe that could fly nearly undetected by deflecting or absorbing radar signals.
In the middle of the decade, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency collaborated with American aviation firms to determine the largest radar cross-section an airframe could have and still remain undetectable by enemy airframes. Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin were tapped to create stealth prototypes. Ultimately, Lockheed designed the F-117 airframe and Northrop created the technology that would become the B-2 stealth bomber.
Specs and Capabilities
Capable of all-altitude attack missions with long-ranges, the B-2 can fly to any point in the world within hours. Armament-wise, the Spirit can pack a punch. To separate weapons bays sit in the center of the airframe. With a carrying capacity of 40,000 pounds, the B-2 can carry conventional weapons, nuclear weapons, and a host of other munitions. As detailed by Air Force Technology, “Each weapons bay is equipped with a rotary launcher and two bomb-rack assemblies.
In tests, the B-2 successfully released B-61 and B-83 nuclear and mk84 conventional bombs from the rotary rocket launcher, and mk82 and CBU-87 conventional weapons from the bomb racks.
The B61-11 is an earth-penetrating nuclear bomb for use against deeply buried and hardened targets. The B83 is a strategic free-fall nuclear bomb.”
Over the years, the B-2 Spirit has incorporated a series of upgrades. A generic weapons interface system was added as part of the Block 30 upgrade, enabling the airframe to attack up to four different types of targets on one mission. Other weapons enhancements include the addition of the upgraded nuclear B-61 Mod 2 variant, which allows any bomb a greater envelope of attack opportunities.
Over its three-plus decades of life so far, the Spirit has seen combat in Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.
Today, 20 B-2 Spirits remain in use with the Air Force.
This number was originally 21, but a B-2 was lost in a crash in 2008.
Although the Spirit is set to be replaced by the B-21 Raider in the early 2030s, the airframe remains the most formidable bomber aircraft in the skies today.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.