KNOB KNOSTER, Mo. — Two years ago, an Air Force ground crew rolled a B-2 Stealth bomber from a hangar here and hosed it down before a skeptical civilian audience to settle a question: Would an afternoon cloudburst melt the bomber's delicate skin and knock the plane out of the sky?
These days when the B-2 emerges from its shelter at Whiteman Air Force Base, onlookers ponder a far different question: Is a plane once mocked by critics as the Pentagon's ultimate gold-plated boondoggle about to become America's weapon of choice in the early 21st century?
The most expensive and controversial warplane ever built, the B-2 has undergone a stunning reversal of fortune with its combat debut in the air war against Yugoslavia. With its radar-evading capacity and huge payload, the bat-winged bomber is suddenly looking like the answer to the kind of military emergencies that the United States has encountered in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf and the terrorist training camps of Afghanistan.
With only 24 hours' notice and apparently minimal risk to its crew, the B-2 can accurately drop up to 16 2,000-pound bombs on heavily guarded targets in any corner of the world. The B-1 bomber is faster and the 37-year-old B-52 can carry more bombs, but the B-2's stealth qualities give the Air Force, for the first time, the ability to strike anywhere before the enemy knows an attack is under way.
Though some technical questions remain, the B-2 in many circumstances can strike with more speed and punch than the cruise missiles that have become the hallmark of the Clinton administration's approach to warfare.
Some military officials, including Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Short, U.S. air commander in the Kosovo campaign, have called the B-2 and its all-weather, satellite-guided bombing system the greatest technology success story of Operation Allied Force. They are predicting that America's regional military commanders, who are cautious about using unproved systems and who delayed the B-2's debut for months, now will turn to it regularly.
Such recognition is considered long overdue by the thousands of people who built the B-2, including Southern California employees at Northrop Grumman, the lead contractor, in Palmdale and Pico Rivera. "I feel vindicated," said Ralph Crosby Jr., a senior Northrop executive who formerly headed the company's B-2 program.
At its peak, about 40,000 people in 38 states worked on a program that cost $44 billion. (That compares with $25 billion, in current dollars, spent on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.)
About 16,500 people worked on the B-2 in California, including 13,000 at Northrop, making it the largest California defense program of the era.
At one point, the Defense Department had planned to procure 132 of the aircraft, which could have driven down the cost per plane considerably. But even with the success in Yugoslavia, there appears to be almost no chance the Pentagon will expand the existing fleet of 21 planes. The Air Force leadership, dominated by fighter jocks instead of bomber pilots, wants to focus its buying power on the next-generation stealth aircraft, the F-22 fighter plane. The $70-billion F-22 program, as envisioned, would produce 339 planes that can fly faster and stealthier than existing fighters, making it possible to destroy enemy planes at a greater range.
Built to Bomb Soviet Mobile Missiles
Development of the B-2 began in 1981 in the early days of President Reagan's arms buildup. The Pentagon's objective was to acquire a heavy nuclear bomber that, barely visible to radar, could penetrate Soviet air defenses to destroy elusive mobile nuclear missiles.
The sleek plane, shaped like a boomerang, has a wingspan of 172 feet and a length of only 69 feet. Its tailless, horizontal design, radar-absorbing plastic composite skin and other features make it very hard to track with radar. It is also tough to find with sensors that pick up heat, sound or electromagnetic impulses. And it often is difficult even to see in the sky.
The B-2 was used from the first night in the Kosovo war to smash well-protected fixed targets, including air defenses that put other North Atlantic Treaty Organization planes at risk.
Flying in pairs on a 30-hour round-trip mission from Whiteman Air Force Base in farm country 60 miles southeast of Kansas City, the B-2s smashed Yugoslav command bunkers, radar installations, communications sites, bridges, arms factories and other heavily defended targets. The aircraft is refueled in the air twice on the way there, and twice on the return leg.
The B-2's mission was to "go in after the highest threat and the hardest targets," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy Barnidge Jr., commander of the 509th Bomber Wing, which includes all the B-2s. "We kick the door in and make it so others can follow."