The Plane That Would Bomb Iran

Inside the cockpit and culture of the B-2, whose pilots may carry the greatest responsibility in the U.S. military today

From Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "Spirit in the Sky"

Robert D. Kaplan narrates photos of the B-2 Spirit, the Air Force's top-of-the-line, nuclear-capable stealth bomber plane.

In June of last year, I went to Andersen Air Force Base, in Guam, to be embedded with the squadron flying the Air Force’s top-of-the-line strategic weapon: the B-2 Spirit, a massive, nuclear-capable stealth bomber that looks like a jagged boomerang and, with a price tag of nearly $1.2 billion, makes other planes seem cheap. It was my third visit in two years to Guam, an island of growing significance in America’s military-deployment strategy. The occasion for my visit was Valiant Shield, a military exercise—and the largest display of U. S. military power in the Pacific since the Vietnam War—in which several B-2s would be participating. Valiant Shield 2006 featured three aircraft-carrier strike groups, with all of their attendant destroyers, cruisers, frigates, submarines, and aircraft—290 aircraft in all, including B-2s, Marine F-18Cs, Navy F/A-18Es, and Air Force F-15Es. Never mind the official rhetoric—the point of this show of force was to impress adversaries like North Korea and competitors like China. (China had been invited to send a military delegation; the day before I arrived, Chinese officials were inspecting the bombers from the outside.)

Andersen Air Force Base has long had a squadron of heavy bombers, deployed there to be close to Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. On one of my previous visits to the base, in the autumn of 2004, I’d spent time with B-52 pilots from Barksdale Air Force Base, near Shreveport, Louisiana. They were young, happy-go-lucky, uncomplicated. I was profoundly curious about the B-2 pilots. For a host of reasons, they had to be different.

A B-2 Spirit costs roughly as much as a fast-attack nuclear submarine or a guided-missile destroyer. But whereas a Los Angeles–class submarine requires a crew of 130 and an Arleigh Burke–class destroyer a crew of 320, the B-2 has a crew of just two: a pilot and a mission commander. There are only 21 B-2s in the Air Force. Nobody else in the U.S. military is entrusted with as much responsibility, in terms of sheer dollars, as these bomber pilots are. If a single B-2 were to go down, even in training, it would be a banner-headline story.

So who are these guys?

The pilots I was embedded with were from the 393rd Bomb Squadron, out of Whiteman Air Force Base, near Kansas City, and they were in Guam on a four-month rotation. The 393rd is the squadron whose planes dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, the current commander is the grandson of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr., the pilot who flew the Hiroshima mission in 1945. Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. “Nuke” Tibbets IV grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and graduated from the Air Force Academy. He was one of several B-2 pilots whose quarters I shared.

Another of the B-2 pilots I roomed with, also an academy graduate, was Captain Jim “Genghis” Price, from Mesquite, Nevada. Tibbets had gotten his call sign because of his grandfather; Price earned his by destroying a line of suspect buildings in Afghanistan with a “stick” of 28 500-pound bombs, and then dropping cluster bombs on nearby cave entrances. This was in early 2002, during Operation Anaconda, and he was flying a B-52 Stratofortress—or BUFF (“Big Ugly Fat Fucker”), as pilots call that hall-of-fame bomber, which made its debut in Vietnam.

Nuke Tibbets and Genghis Price were both inspired to join the Air Force by their Army dads. That’s right: Tibbets’s unfamous father, not his famous grandfather, had the most influence on his career.

“My grandfather was the ultimate warrior,” Tibbets told me in a mild southern accent that’s been fading during his years away from Alabama. “He was a gruff man of few words, whose real historic accomplishment was the B-29 unit he had organized and trained, which ended World War II. The fact that he personally flew the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb reflected his belief that the ultimate warrior is always in the front line. But it was a detail compared to his organizational accomplishment.

“For my grandfather, the mission was everything, which meant his family suffered. He divorced my grandmother and so wasn’t around a lot when my dad was growing up. My dad had terrible eyesight and so couldn’t be a pilot. He became a pharmacist in civilian life and rose to become a colonel in the Army Reserve, commanding a deployable MASH-like hospital unit. But my father gently encouraged me toward the Air Force. Good on him that he never forced it on me.

“Once I was in the Air Force, my grandfather rolled into my life and influenced me to be a bomber pilot. In his day, my grandfather wanted to fly bombers, as they were taking the fight to the enemy, while pursuit aircraft were supporting that effort.”

For Price, the path was simpler. His father was an Army sergeant at Fort Carson, Colorado—close to the Air Force Academy—and all Genghis ever wanted to do was fly jets in combat. “It’s a sappy story, but it’s true,” he told me in a permanently eager, cheerful voice. “In high school, I played sports, joined all the clubs, ticked off all the activities that would just help me get into the academy.”

Genghis is a practicing Mormon who has served on religious missions to Latin America. Macho isn’t a word one would associate with him, or with Nuke. Instead, they exude a humble, introspective star quality. When I asked Nuke what attributes he and others look for when selecting members of the squadron, he said, “People who are team players to such an extent that they are self-starters, and who never want to be noticed or recognized.”

Nuke and Genghis are both of average height, with taut bodies—Price weighs only 126 pounds—and tense expressions. Their physiques match their quiet, precise personalities. The BUFF pilots I’d met were boisterous, hard-charging types; the B-2 pilots were older and calmer, with patience forged by—to use one example—29-hour hauls from Whiteman to Kosovo. These were continuous flights, with two aerial refuelings before the planes even entered the war zone. Nuke and Genghis didn’t have nine Gs available to them to avoid enemy fire. They depended on getting into and out of a battle space unseen.

No plane is invisible to radar. The trick is to reduce an aircraft’s “signature” so that you can “get iron past” a screen of overlapping surface-to-air missile sites. A B-2 is able to penetrate such screens because its boomerang shape gives it a severely reduced signature. It can drop as much ordnance as an entire squadron of fighter jets, directing bombs to their targets with GPS tail kits. All of this requires meticulous planning—the crux of a B-2’s mission.

I saw no nude pinups on the B-2 pilots’ walls or computer screens; rather, I saw photos of wives and kids, and I heard many references to community service and church. The pilots rarely cussed, unlike almost everyone else I’ve met in front-line military units. And they were less transient: A B-2 pilot can spend five years stationed at Whiteman, whereas other combat Air Force pilots bounce around the country and the world; until recently, regular Air Force pilots changed locations every two years. The B-2 pilots’ lifestyle helps keep families together.

Although the Air Force is run by aggressive fighter jocks, the B-2 men are, in a deeper sense, the ultimate Air Force pilots. A comparison with naval aviators helps illuminate their mind-set. Navy pilots have a reputation for being screaming-off-the-carrier-deck daredevils; alone in the ocean, without issues like noise restrictions to worry about, they have fewer rules. Naval aviation is about what you can do with an aircraft; Air Force aviation is about what you can’t do. Begotten by the U.S. military in 1947, the Air Force had its character molded by the Cold War’s Strategic Air Command, the core of our nuclear-delivery system. Because of their awesome strategic responsibilities, Air Force pilots are more by-the-book, more operationally conservative, than their Navy counterparts.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy. This article is drawn from his book Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, published this month by Random House.

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