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

And B-2 pilots, in particular, have deeply internalized remnants of the Cold War sensibility. Being with them gave me a palpable sense of the terrifyingly complex struggles that may lie ahead. The squadron’s group commander of operations, Colonel Robert “Wheels” Wheeler, summed it up this way: “How do you take out a chemical-biological site of a rogue nation with surety, without inadvertently killing thousands of innocent civilians downwind? Well, the best way to avoid collateral damage would be to obliterate the site in place, with a weapon that either buries the site or burns it completely.”

From the archives:

"NATO's Compromise" (April 1, 1999)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel

If we have learned anything since the Berlin Wall fell, it is that nothing can be ruled out. When the B-2 was developed, in the 1980s, part of the thinking was that the pressure to counteract such a stealthy and powerful nuclear bomber would lure the Soviets into further wrecking their economy. Few expected that the plane would be anything more than a theoretical asset, especially after the Cold War ended. Then came the war in Kosovo.

The 1999 conflict represented a breakthrough for the Air Force: Rather than a multiplane carpet-bombing strategy, we also deployed just a few B-2s, each one hitting multiple targets with the superaccuracy of a fighter jet. Suddenly, aerial warfare was no longer about how many planes were needed to take out a big target, but about how many targets could be taken out with a single plane. The conflict in Kosovo also demonstrated that technology could permit the waging of limited wars. The B-2 helped allow President Bill Clinton, who had little appetite for incurring casualties in a humanitarian intervention, to launch strikes with minimal risk to the pilots.

The B-2 has subsequently been used in Afghanistan and Iraq, where, as Colonel Wheeler noted, “The B-2 makes a statement. And that statement is, ‘We mean business!’” He banged his fist on the table. Wheeler is the classic intense Air Force intellectual. He has degrees in both engineering and strategic studies and is a veteran of three wars and a diplomatic posting in Europe. His insights came in hyperactive bursts between sips from a quart-sized plastic coffee mug.

“The deterrence effect of this airplane may be as important as its destructive capability,” he went on. “Any adversary knows that the B-2 can enter relatively unseen with the power and accuracy to destroy. Merely by having the B-2, we can better influence the decision-making process in rogue nations and encourage any other countries to perhaps go another route in their national defense. The stealth bomber is a diplomatic instrument as much as it is a military instrument.” Wheeler didn’t say this explicitly, but for rogue nations, you should read “Iran and North Korea”; for other countries read “China and a resurgent, nationalistic Russia.”

As countries like Iran and North Korea put more and more of their critical facilities deep underground, in places that cruise missiles launched from such offshore platforms as submarines lack the kinetic energy to penetrate, the B-2’s ability to drop heavier bombs becomes ever more important. If the United States ever attacks Iran, expect to be reading a lot about the B-2. And if we never do, the B-2 will have been a hidden hand behind the muscular diplomacy that made an attack unnecessary.

Among soldiers and marines, there exists a brotherhood of warriors. But with sailors and airmen, the relationship is triangulated by technology—by an emotional bond to this class of ship or to that type of aircraft. The phenomenon is especially pronounced with the B-2.

Take Michael “Bo” Baumeister, of Thousand Oaks, California, who retired as a chief master sergeant after 26 years in the Air Force and now works at Whiteman as a civilian for the Department of Defense, or “DOD,” as he habitually calls it. Bo, a maintenance specialist for the B-2, is your typical good old boy, with a ball cap and country accent; he chews Skoal and hunts deer and pigs. “Why did you go to work for the government, rather than for a private contractor, where you could make real money?” I asked him. “I couldn’t see leaving her,” Bo replied, referring to the B-2. “And DOD offered me the chance to stay with the plane.”

He explained further: “It’s a pride thing. We’re the B-2. We not only kick down your door, we go in and out of your country without you even knowing it. We take out your head of state, your nuke and chem-bio plants, your SAM [surface-to-air missile] sites. ‘Follow us. We clear the path,’ we say to the other aerial platforms.”

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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