The two stealth bombers had just arrived in Guam on the B-2’s maiden overseas deployment when a giant storm hit the island. The downpour produced an interesting scene: There, parked in the open, stood one of the sleek new bombers, totally exposed to the elements and pounded for hours by thunderous rain. Nearby, in an open-air hangar, stood the other B-2, undergoing the full range of maintenance.
So much for the news media myth that the B-2’s stealthiness “melts in the rain.” And so much for the charge that B-2 maintenance requires special, fabulously sophisticated repair facilities.
The Guam training deployment did more than dispel a few outlandish B-2 news media myths. The 11-day excursion to Andersen AFB in March and April gave the Air Force a chance to gather valuable information about the awesome capabilities–and limitations–of its newest operational aircraft and to chart a course for the future of the B-2 fleet.
The deployment, dubbed Island Spirit, was designed to answer important questions about the B-2. Front and center in the minds of USAF planners–and of Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff–was whether the B-2 could effectively operate for long periods away from its home at Whiteman AFB, Mo. As Ryan said in the days before the two Spirits left for the Pacific: “We know this is a great plane; now we want to know if we can forward deploy it.”
Task No. 1
Air Force officials knew that, in their effort to make that determination, the single most important task would be to find out if the bomber’s low observable features could be maintained over a prolonged period at a forward operating base.
Officials at the 509th Bomb Wing, which operates the B-2 fleet, had other questions of their own. They wanted to know what such a forward deployment would require in numbers of support personnel and types of equipment that would have to accompany the bombers. The wing commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas B. Goslin Jr., repeatedly drove home that point, urging his staff to take extensive notes to capture all possible lessons.
For example, Goslin had no doubt that the 200-person party that accompanied the stealth bombers this time was too large and didn’t necessarily contain the right mix of capabilities. More important, he said, was to learn who and what was and wasn’t needed in the future.
Why Guam? For one thing, explained Air Force officials, Andersen has no permanently assigned combat forces. That offered wing officials freedom to exercise in a relatively unrestricted fashion, without their having to be concerned about interrupting other flight operations. In addition, Guam offered a “strategic location” for future operations. “From Anderson we can reach most places in the Pacific” theater, Goslin pointed out.
USAF officials have long noted that B-2s can strike any target by flying “Global Power” missions from Whiteman. However, for sustained combat operations, deployments to forward locations are critical. If the B-2s are tasked to halt an advancing enemy in the early phase of a Major Regional Conflict, the bombers would have to fly to a closer location such as Guam in order to generate a large number of sorties in rapid succession.
By operating out of Guam instead of Whiteman, officials note, B-2s cut by more than half the time it takes to engage some targets–for example, any targets in Korea–and return. Similarly, the flight time to Southwest Asia is much shorter from Guam. The British facility at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean would make an even better forward staging base for operations against Gulf targets.
With the eyes of the Air Force–and many others–on them, officials from the 509th didn’t need to be told how important the Guam excursion would be.
The two aircraft selected for the mission were Spirit of Louisiana and Spirit of Pennsylvania. They left Whiteman on March 23 and began a 20-hour, nonstop, “employ-deploy” mission to Guam. They landed at Andersen late on March 24, after having dropped live 500-pound Mk 82 bombs on a range in the Northern Marianas, north of Guam.
Both of the bombers sent to Guam were Block 30 versions, which are the most modern configuration the Air Force is fielding. It includes several enhancements over the Block 20 bombers that provided USAF with an initial operational B-2 capability in April 1997. Island Spirit would show that the Block 30 provides nothing short of a major leap forward, particularly in the area of low observable maintenance.
Largely as a result of maintenance shortcomings, the B-2 fleet drew fire last year from critics, particularly the General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency. The critics included even USAF’s own test organization, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center. Much of the criticism was based on the performance of Block 20 bombers, Air Force officials note.
During the course of the 11-day deployment, each of the two B-2s would fly two more sorties to the range near Guam. On one mission, Spirit of Pennsylvania dropped its maximum load of 80 unguided Mk 82s on a tiny island, Farallon de Medinilla, an uninhabited spit located 120 nautical miles northeast of Guam. The island, measuring 500 feet by 2,400 feet, is part of the range complex. All of the bombs hit their targets.
The deployment ended April 2 when the B-2s flew to Edwards AFB, Calif. There, USAF technicians went to work to determine in detail how well the B-2’s low observable characteristics held up in the adverse weather conditions in the Pacific and after a total of almost 90 flight hours for each airplane.
On this score, Air Force officials were more than pleased with what they learned. The service has classified the precise figures concerning the bombers’ radar cross section. However, Ryan said the B-2 had clearly demonstrated that it has “a very robust low observable capability.”
Just a few weeks after he had announced that he wanted to know whether the B-2’s stealth could be maintained, Ryan now said confidently, “With the attention we can give them in a deployed location, we can maintain the [stealth] signature.”
This determination has a significant operational impact. Lt. Gen. Patrick K. Gamble, deputy chief of staff, air and space operations, said some weeks after the end of the deployment, “We have enough confidence in [the B-2] now to be able to offer it up to a joint planner, and will do so, and have done so.”
On the maintenance side, the Block 30 bombers held up far better than earlier models during long missions. USAF projected that the introduction of the newest B-2 configuration would cut low observable maintenance by 27 percent. In Guam, however, the actual results were even better than that.
At the end of the 20-hour mission to Guam, one B-2 landed with 12 LO maintenance write-ups and the other with three. That compares to an average of approximately 40 LO maintenance write-ups that older B-2s usually experience. One maintainer pointed out that Block 30 low observable characteristics are much more robust, though nicks in the LO material take a little longer to fix than they did on the Block 20s.
Guam didn’t present the friendliest environment to fix the low observable discrepancies. Thanks to Supertyphoon Paka, which in December struck Guam with more than 230 mph winds, maintenance facilities at Andersen weren’t in pristine condition. As a result, most of the maintenance on the bombers was done outside.
The sole hangar available for sheltered B-2 maintenance provided little more than a roof and no relief from 90-degree heat and sweltering humidity. The lack of climate control, however, didn’t have any impact on the curing of the LO materials used to make LO repairs, according to maintainers.
Changes in Store
Despite the improvements in low observable maintenance, USAF is continuing to look for ways to further improve how to sustain the bombers. One of the planned upgrades is designed to allow the B-2’s maintainers to work on components inside the wing without afterwards having to reapply large amounts of radar-absorbent material. In this change, the tape that smooths the B-2’s surfaces will be replaced with panels; workers easily can remove them for access to the wing and quickly replace them after completion of repairs.
In addition to the maintenance improvements, the B-2 will receive a host of capabilities upgrades over its lifetime. USAF knows that the bomber has superior performance characteristics, but Ryan noted, “You always have to work on it.” With the B-2 representing the backbone of the Air Force’s first-day-of-the-war operations, Ryan added, “You’ve got to always keep on the leading edge with the B-2 as best you can.”
The B-2 deployment wasn’t completely free of glitches. The most notable problem emerged during the mission from Whiteman to Guam. During the bombing mission, eight bombs in the right bay of Spirit of Louisiana failed to drop. Goslin, who had been piloting the aircraft, said he flew a second pass over the range and jettisoned the bombs for safety reasons. A bad sector on the mission planning tape was identified as causing the hang-ups.
The question then was whether to continue to use the bomb bay as planned, dispense only inert bombs, or leave it empty. One option that was looked at was flying exactly the same mission tape over the range to see if the bombs would drop this time.
The debate over how to handle the bomb-drop problem showed that people at the 509th Wing are very aware that, with only 21 B-2s, each bomber is a capital asset and can’t be jeopardized unnecessarily. Not surprisingly, therefore, the decision was made to leave the bay empty for the remainder of the deployment and undergo a thorough analysis back at Whiteman. In a real combat operation, bombs would have been loaded, one officer said.
Dropping the Mk 82s was not critical to the deployment. USAF used them because it has a large inventory of these bombs, many of which were available because they were about to run out of service life. In an operational scenario, however, the B-2 is unlikely to drop 500-pound dumb bombs, given that it can drop with near-precision accuracy 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions and 4,700-pound GBU-37s.
The Guam deployment served as a dress rehearsal for the B-2’s first nuclear Operational Readiness Inspection later this year. That will be followed a year later by the wing’s conventional ORI. As part of the inspection, independent auditors come to the wing to observe and critique the procedures to carry out either the nuclear or conventional missions. One intriguing aspect of these ORIs, said Goslin, is that the assessment will be made by independent officials. He said this procedure will give “credibility to the system.”
Wing officials expect the nuclear ORI this year to be slightly more extensive than the conventional review, in large part because of special inspection requirements linked to the handling of nuclear weapons. B-2s will be brought to alert status and later stood down while inspectors monitor all aspects of getting the B-2s ready. As part of the drill, B-2 crews will fly representative nuclear mission profiles and simulated nuclear strike missions.
In the conventional ORI, the B-2s will, in effect, simulate a deployment by moving equipment and bombers to an area cordoned off from the rest of the Whiteman complex. Crews will fly several missions in conventional sortie profiles. During the inspection, the wing will be instructed to carry out some operations in an environment simulated to look like one contaminated by chemical and biological weapons.
In addition to preparing for these readiness inspections, Air Force personnel are trying to focus on integrating the B-2s into the regular combat forces. Ryan said that, in an operational scenario, the Air Force will “always” package aircraft having LO capabilities with “aluminum airplanes.” Ryan noted, “We need to continue to work on the tactics, training, and procedures that allow these forces to interact.”
To operationalize the B-2, the Air Force plans to conduct a whole series of further deployments and experiments. For example, Block 30 B-2s are expected to start participating in USAF’s Red Flag series of operational exercises.
In addition, plans call for B-2s, within 12 months, to forward deploy on at least two more occasions. The sites for the deployments haven’t been selected, but one will be in the United States and the other will be overseas. The US deployment will feature about eight bombers, in both the Block 20 and Block 30 configuration. USAF only has six Block 30s and four Block 20s available. The rest are being built up into Block 30 aircraft.
The two deployments are supposed to help smooth the way for the conventional ORI. The idea, said Gamble, is to “push the envelope out a little bit farther [operationally], continue to expand it, and explore the tactical possibilities” of using the B-2s in combat.
USAF wants the B-2 in the not-too-distant future to reach another critical milestone: operate as part of an international exercise. Interest in doing that stems largely from the belief that any future operations will be conducted only with allies. At the same time, however, the Air Force is trying to figure out how it can integrate B-2s into such an exercise and still preserve secrets associated with the bomber’s stealthiness.
Robert Wall is the Pentagon reporter for Aerospace Daily, a Washington-based defense and commercial aviation periodical. Wall’s most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Devastating Impact of Sensor Fuzed Weapons,” appeared in the March 1998 issue.