For its time, the B-2 stealth bomber was the most expensive aircraft ever constructed. Yet, the real question is whether or not B-2 was worth the investment.
The B-2 Spirit was the first stealth bomber, and while it’s not the most costly plane ever made, it is the most expensive plane ever built (despite the “B-2” in the name). How much exactly? It was $737 Million initially, as the Times of India stated. However, the price rose when it was finally introduced to the United States Air Force. Costs per plane averaged $2.13 billion throughout the program’s life cycle. That makes the F-35 Lightning II look like a bargain. The question arises: is the B-2 Spirit worth its astronomical price tag? How much value do you get for your money? Let’s delve even further into the past of this costly plane.
The original stealth bomber, the F-117 Nighthawk, was not created by Skunk Works, the famed aircraft design program directed by the legendary Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, unlike the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 (real stealth fighters). Instead, Northrop Grumman is responsible for the B-2.
In 1987, production of the warbird began. Once this plane assembled at its final assembly plant in Palmdale, California, it was unveiled to the world with much fanfare and little actual secrecy in November 1988.
The Spirit took to the air for the first time on July 17, 1989, but it was in April 1997 that she reached initial operating capability. The media and lawmakers were filled with mockery as costs skyrocketed between the public debut and full operation. The thing’s efficacy was called into question by many. It wasn’t long after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991 that skeptics began to raise their voices.
Remember, the B-2 is a Cold War relic, built to break through Soviet air defenses while toting conventional and nuclear missiles. The original acquisition plan called for 132 airframes, but Congress decreased that number to 21.
No Spirit has breached Russian airspace to date.
Subsonic like the F-117, the B-2 can reach a top speed of 630 miles per hour and a cruising speed of 560 miles per hour. It measures 172 feet in wingspan, 69 feet in body length, and 17 feet in height.
The warbird can carry up to 336,500 pounds in its bomb bays during takeoff, and her two internal bomb bays can hold 40,000 pounds of explosives. The Spirit can travel with that bomb load for up to 6,000 nautical miles before refueling.
Ten years after her first flight and eight years after the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1999, the Spirit would see the battle for the first time, and against another former communist country: Serbia, formerly the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
During Operation Allied Force, the B-2 was first used in combat. The trip took two B-2 bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, over 31 hours to reach their destination of Kosovo. They flew straight back after attacking various targets. B-2s flew only 1% of all missions, but they were responsible for 33% of all targets being destroyed in the first eight weeks of the fight. (Italics mine.)
The stealth bomber would once again prove that she is worth the money the United States government spent on her in the fight against terrorism. By doing so, it changed the course of events forever. Again, from the Northrop Grumman data sheet:
The B-2 has flown the longest combat missions of any aircraft. The Spirit of America and five other B-2s made history in 2001 by being the first to enter Afghan airspace for a 44-hour mission.
Even more astounding, the B-2 only had to land for 45 minutes to switch crews and services while still in flight. After landing in Missouri after 70 hours in the air, it took off again for another 30 hours.
Throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom and again in Libya for both Odyssey Dawn and Odyssey Lightning, the Spirit consistently showed its worth as a combat aircraft.
Today, the media’s skepticism and mockery have disappeared. Furthermore, CNN Style correspondent Jacopo Prisco was effusive in his praise of the B-2 in a recent article, saying, “One of the most complex flying aircraft in existence, the B-2 can reach a target anywhere in the world and return to base, refueling in mid-air.” As far as we know, no B-2 has ever been shot down in battle. (Italics mine.)
Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri is the only active home for the B-2. The B-21 Raider, her successor, won’t fly until 2023 or later. When it will finally be fully operational after that is anyone’s guess. As a result, the Spirit will remain an integral part of the United States air force for the foreseeable future.