The Northrop B-2 Spirit is one of the most iconic military aircraft ever made. Its shape is instantly recognizable, even to those with little to no military knowledge. But its famous shape isn’t for looks alone. Despite its popularity, the B-2 Spirit “Stealth Bomber” has earned its place in history by being virtually undetectable to enemy surveillance. For this reason it has been instrumental in a variety of missions, with the ability to spy on enemy territory or level targets with its heavy payload of bombs.
There’s also a fair amount of controversy surrounding the B-2. From its steep price tag to the United States’ need for such planes, governments and taxpayers remain somewhat divided when it comes to the B-2’s place in the Air Force’s fleet. As an aircraft that was designed in the 70s yet remains relatively inexperienced in the field, the B-2 has a unique history, and an uncertain future.
Here are 10 incredible facts you may not have known about the Northrop B-2 Spirit bomber.
10. It was Developed In Secrecy
The mid-1970s brought the need to replace the aging Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. Constantly improving anti-aircraft technology was putting pressure on military developers to come up with new ways for aircraft to avoid detection. Planes like the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” (you can read more about it here) utilized certain components of stealth technology. The Blackbird in particular used a combination of speed, high altitude and composite materials that absorbed radar. By 1979 “stealth” technology had advanced to the point that development could begin on a true stealth bomber.
Originally a Gray Project, meaning that although it was kept secret from the public, some information on it was available to the government, the B-2’s technologies were kept under wraps. So much so that a Northrop employee was arrested in 1984 when he attempted to leak info on the aircraft’s development to the Soviet Union.
After almost a decade in development, the B-2 was first revealed to the public in 1988. Even then, the viewing was tightly restricted and spectators were not allowed to see the rear of the plane (however Aviation Week editors found a way to take photos of the B-2’s rear platform and engine exhaust anyway.)
9. It’s Virtually Invisible to Radar
One of the most important factors contributing to the B-2’s stealth capabilities is the shape of its body. The “flying wing” design introduced with the YB-49 gives the Spirit a very minimal radar profile and its aerodynamics give it a great range of around 6,900 miles. The plane itself is made largely of radar-absorbent materials which make it virtually impossible to detect.
The B-2’s engines are buried within its wings, minimizing their exhaust signature and concealing the engines’ fans. The bottom of the aircraft is covered in anti-reflective paint which blends into the sky at high altitudes making it invisible to both radar and the naked eye. Originally, the white contrail left by the jet engines was eliminated by an added chemical, but later developments did away with this feature in favor of a sensor which alerts the pilot when to change altitude to avoid leaving a trail.
8. Its Origins Date Back to the 1940s with the YB-49 Flying Wing
Although the Northrop YB-49 never entered production, it helped lay the groundwork for the design of the B-2 Spirit. The YB-49 was a jet-powered variant based off of Northrop’s piston-powered XB-35 and YB-35 bombers. Only two YB-49s were ever made, and the project was shelved in favor of the more conventional Corvair B-36.
The flying wing design was revolutionary in that it eliminated the need for a tail and fuselage, opting instead to carry its payload in two very large wings. The design proved to be more aerodynamic than the traditional plane but because of expensive development costs and the need for extensive testing the project was put on the back burner until Northrop resurrected it with the B-2 in the 1980s.
7. Each Plane Cost Over $2 Billion
The original plan was to build 132 B-2 Spirits, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the primary need for the bombers was greatly reduced to the point that President George H. W. Bush announced that production would be limited to 20 aircraft in 1992.
Three years later Northrop made a proposal to build an additional 20 aircraft at a cost of $566 million each. This raised a lot of controversy over Americans’ tax dollars, as it was exposed that the operation costs of these planes were considerably higher than those of other bombers. All in all, the B-2 program saw a price tag of $2.13 billion for every B-2 Spirit made. It was estimated in 2010 that each of these planes cost $135,000 per flight hour to operate, which is double the cost of the B-52 and B-1.
As of right now, no new plans have been released to directly replace the B-2. Focus remains on upgrades and modifications to the existing aircraft.
6. It Can Carry 40,000 Pounds of Munitions
This number isn’t all that impressive. In fact, the much larger B-52 bomber can carry up to 70,000 lbs of munitions. What makes the B-2 impressive is the accuracy with which it can deploy its bombs and the fact that it can access guarded territory without being detected.
The U.S. military redefined the B-2’s role after the Soviet Union dissolved. Whereas before it was intended to primarily carry nuclear bombs, it was converted into a multi-role bomber capable of carrying conventional bombs as well.
The B-2 has two rotary launchers capable of releasing “dumb” bombs, which simply fall on the target, as well as precision guided bombs. The bomber is equipped with GPS targeting which allows it to attack its target swiftly and with precision.
5. It Was One of the First Planes Designed With Computers
Since the B-2 was so complex and required such attention to detail to ensure its stealth characteristics, the use of early computer technologies was instrumental in the aircraft’s design and manufacturing process. While the plane’s shape had many advantages, one particular disadvantage was in the stability department. Without a tail or fuselage, the B-2 lacked the backbone to keep it stable during rough weather, which limited its in-flight capabilities. The lack of adequate design technology is one reason why it took so long for the flying wing design to be properly utilized by the U.S. Air Force.
4. The U.S. Bomber Fleet is Not Impressive
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the United States military’s fleet of bombers, most of which are getting shockingly long in the tooth. The current fleet contains 160 heavy bombers, including six B-52 Stratofortresses (last made in 1962), 63 B-1 Lancers (last made in 1988), and 20 B-2 Spirits (last made in 1993). That’s an average age of 33 years per plane. Yikes.
To make matters worse, the Air Force plans to keep on using their B-1s and B-52s until 2040 and the B-2s until 2060. There is already worry that these aircraft are quickly becoming (or have long been) technologically obsolete with regard to other countries’ military weapons. Their vulnerability to attack only increases with their age, and the U.S. appears to have no replacements on the horizon.
3. It was First Used in Combat in 1999
Although it was never used in the function it was designed for (dropping nuclear bombs during the Cold War), the B-2 entered action for the first time in 1999, dropping conventional munitions in the Kosovo War. It was responsible for 33% of the targets destroyed and its GPS targeting system proved highly effective compared to the carpet bombing techniques used previously by other bombers. B-2s have since dropped bombs during missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
2. The Plane is Highly Automated
While maintenance and operating costs have proven to be astronomically high for the planes, they are efficient when it comes to the crew members needed to fly them. The B-2 is highly automated and requires only two crew members to operate it in flight (the B1-B requires four and the B-52 requires five.) The B-2’s crew includes a pilot (left seat) and a mission commander (right seat) and has place for a third crew member should the need arise.
Extensive research was done on pilot fatigue and sleep cycles for the B-2’s operation, and it’s one of very few two-seat aircraft that allows one member to sleep, prepare meals or use the washroom while the other flies the plane.
1. Plans for a Follow-Up
Since the end of the Cold War, little emphasis has been placed on expanding or revitalizing the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of bombers. In fact, one could argue the military’s bomber fleet has regressed, as only 20 out of an originally planned 132 B-2’s were actually built, and it’s now relying heavily on a fleet of aging bombers from the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Plans are reportedly in the works to develop what is being referred to as a new Long Range Strike Bomber. Details are scarce on the project, but what’s known is that we shouldn’t expect to see an operational product in the air before 2025.
Northrop Grumman recently teased what looks to be a new version of the B-2 in a commercial, but we’re not ready to jump to conclusions on the future of the plane just yet.