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

I understood Bo’s poignant, if over-the-top, infatuation with the plane. Indeed, a B-2 is endlessly fascinating merely to look at. The official Air Force description has it right: The B-2 is not so much a plane as a “flying wing,” a jagged gray-black wedge with a small bubble rising out of its center, which is where the pilot and mission commander sit. Seen head-on, the bubble, with its dark windshield, looks like nothing so much as Darth Vader’s mask. The ever-so-slightly-turned-down-beak design of the plane’s front tip heightens the sinister effect. As you walk around the nose, the swept-back angle of the wings makes them disappear, and the plane seems to shrink in size, bringing to mind a small bat. But once you reach the back of the plane, the size of the wings becomes apparent, and you realize just how big the plane is. Its wingspan is 172 feet—greater than the distance covered by Orville Wright during his first flight at Kitty Hawk.

Look for another moment, and something else becomes obvious: All the things that normally protrude vertically from an airplane’s wings—the fuselage, the engines, the tail, all the screws, rivets, tubes, and antennae—are part of the wings themselves. The four engines are snugly implanted on top of the wings, so that the plane becomes loud only when it’s past you; it is quiet when it’s approaching. The doors for the undercarriage and the bomb bays have razor-sharp edges that are sucked shut by hydraulic pressure, rendering the plane’s exterior seamlessly smooth—no bends or ridges, however tiny; no angles that radar can bounce off. An electric current runs from one end of the plane to the other. This forces radar that hits the plane to skim across the wings rather than bounce off and send a signal. A whole section of the plane’s maintenance crew is dedicated to the plane’s “skin care.”

One clear, sunny day in Guam, I became Spirit No. 374—the 374th person to fly in a B-2 Spirit since Northrop Grumman rolled it out of the hangar, in 1989. More people have been in space. Most of the B-2s are named after states. The plane I flew in was the Spirit of Georgia. The pilot was Major Justin “Mulligan” Amann, a graduate of Purdue University’s Air Force ROTC program. The mission commander stayed on the ground to make room for me. Inside the cockpit was the mean smell of metal. With the door closed, there was just enough room for a fold-out cot, on which the crew could take turns resting during long flights.

I attached the buckles of my life-support harness to the ejection seat and connected the oxygen and communications gear to my helmet and face mask. Amann was already busy with the two laptops he’d brought on board to supplement the plane’s computer system, which dates from the 1980s.

The B-2 is less about flying than about weapons programming and coordinating with other air and sea platforms. Adjustments to the rudders, elevons, and tail flap are made continuously by computers; the pilot doesn’t have to worry about these tasks. However, coordinating with naval platforms can pose a challenge, because the Navy and the Air Force use different technological systems; as one pilot told me, harmonizing them is like merging Apple and Microsoft.

The maintenance crew had nicknamed our plane “The Dark Angel.” Our call sign was “Death 62.” The B-2 that would be flying alongside us was “Death 72.” Violence is something no one in the combat Air Force apologizes for. The elite units of the military are about going to war, or “being able to play,” as the troops put it. Senior Master Sergeant Kelly Costa, one of the maintenance men, told me that the most exhilarating moments of his professional life occurred when he was helping to load bombs onto B-2s before the “heavies” left for Kosovo and later Afghanistan.

The flight itself, as I had expected, was not a thrill—nothing like a ride in a fighter jet. We rose and turned at degrees no more dramatic than those of a commercial airliner. After we reached 10,000 feet, Amann put the plane on autopilot. It continued to climb. We took off our oxygen masks, and he immediately got busy programming two missiles and 64 separate 500-pound munitions, which we dropped over Saipan—virtually, of course. I saw exactly what I would have seen had those bombs actually been released: hexagons, each representing an individual bomb, disappearing in twos from the computer screen. Had any of the bombs been nuclear warheads, the screen display would have been the same, but the weapons would have been a different shape.

The sky was near perfect. From 32,000 feet, the bands of cumulus clouds below us looked like occasional imperfections in the glazed surface of the Philippine Sea. Sunlight penetrated the water such that Saipan and Tinian appeared to be back-lit. Several times we flew over the old B-29 runways on Tinian, from which Colonel Paul Tibbets Jr. had flown the Enola Gay to bomb Hiroshima. At one point we unlocked the autopilot, and I flew the plane for 10 minutes. It was similar to sailing on instruments—a matter of making adjustments so that a vertical line stayed on, or close to, a dot on the screen. It struck me that the art of flying was being lost.

Behind this ease of flight lay an entire world: the maintainers’. Deploying the four B-2s from Whiteman to Andersen had taken a maintenance crew of 155, as well as 130 pieces of rolling stock—jammers, light carts, generators. Then there were the huge pallets of equipment, including the containers holding the 170 different chemicals used by the B-2, each of which requires customized climate- controlled conditions and must be disposed of according to strict regulations. The maintainers worked 12-hour shifts, in several buildings and hangars. To get the maintenance crew and equipment to Guam had taken one C-17 Globemaster and four C-5 Galaxies, transport planes so monstrous they dwarf the old standby C-130 Hercules.

Contemplating all of this led me to an unsettling realization: In most cases, it makes little sense to put assets that require so much ground support on forward bases. Because Guam is a U.S. territory, we can make a huge investment there without having to worry that we’ll be thrown out. But there’s no point in basing B-2s at sites controlled by other countries if in the midst of a crisis they might deny us permission to use them. Along with our other top-of-the-line aircraft, the B-2s should remain based primarily in the continental United States—which makes increasing the capacity for worldwide air-to-air refueling a key task for the Air Force.

Colonel Wheeler made the point that in future conflicts conventional assets like the B-2 and fast-attack submarines would be used in tandem with Predator drones, Special Forces A-teams, and Marine Corps platoons. Forget the debate about having needed more troops in Iraq after the initial invasion. As true as that might be, our military’s primary focus in the next few decades will not be on massive troop levels; it will be on hitting specific targets with commando-style ground units that could call in air and sea strikes from platforms that are either untouchable or unseen. For example, during a war with a regional power like Iran, down-and-dirty planes like the A-10 and the AC-130, which typically provide close air support, would be less likely to be used than a high-altitude heavy like the B-2, after Special Operations teams have gone in on the ground for limited periods to identify targets for the planes’ bunker-buster and other high-impact bombs.

Such operations would require an exponential increase in complexity—a greater variety of assets used in quick, symphonic offensives. “We may not be able to mass troops like we used to,” Wheeler observed. “It’s not just a matter of negative publicity from a global media, but of a profusion of competitors that will increasingly have the ability to hit such large formations with weapons of mass destruction. And that will be a chance we won’t want to take.

“Think of bees swarming together in a hive, and then flying off again,” he continued. “That’s the military formation of the 21st century—lots of small joint air-land-sea configurations that combine instantaneously for a big attack and then separate out just as fast.”

From the archives:

"Hunting the Taliban in Las Vegas" (September 2006)
In trailers just minutes away from the slot machines, Air Force pilots control Predators over Iraq and Afghanistan. A case study in the marvels—and limits—of modern military technology. By Robert D. Kaplan

That’s why many of the debates taking place today—about conventional versus nuclear weapons, about spending money on this aircraft versus that one—are simply beside the point. The issue is no longer what an A-team, or a submarine, or a Predator, or a B-2 bomber can do on its own; it’s how these assets can be used in combination to leverage one another.

But that raises a larger issue: If the B-2 is necessary, for both our force structure and our negotiating credibility, as Colonel Wheeler believes it is, then its cost of more than $1 billion per plane is a truly depressing indicator of the price of empire. “Look at the rate of return al-Qaeda got on 9/11,” one former civilian defense official told me. “For an investment of just a few hundred thousand dollars, they forced us to spend billions.” In other words, as necessary as the B-2 might be, what’s its rate of return—20 percent, perhaps? “I’m not saying that we require a rate of return like al-Qaeda gets,” this former official went on, “but we’ll need to narrow the difference if we’re going to remain a great power.”

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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