Cold War: Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit

B-2 Spirit. US Air Force

B-2 Spirit - Specifications:


  • Length: 69 ft.
  • Wingspan: 172 ft.
  • Height: 17 ft.
  • Wing Area: 5,140 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 158,000 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 336,500 lbs.
  • Crew: 2


  • Power Plant: 4 × General Electric F118-GE-100 non-afterburning turbofans, 17,300 lbf each
  • Range: 6,900 miles
  • Max Speed: Mach 0.95
  • Ceiling: 50,000 ft.


  • 2 internal bays for 50,000 lbs. of ordnance

B-2 Spirit - Development:

As the 1960s progressed, the US Air Force was working to find a replacement for the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. While still the service's primary nuclear bomber, the aircraft was also in use during the Vietnam War dropping conventional munitions. With the failure of the XB-70 Valkyrie project, emphasis shifted towards the aircraft that would become the Rockwell B-1 Lancer. As work moved forward on this project in the early 1970s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), began requesting information regarding technologies that could deflect or absorb radar signals. It was believed that if these technologies could be incorporated into an aircraft, it would be impervious to surface-to-air missiles and other radar-based methods of interception. Covertly approaching the aircraft industry in 1974, DARPA selected McDonnell Douglas and Northrop to push forward developing a "stealth" bomber project.

Also included in the discussions was Lockheed as the company had incorporated stealth features into its SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and was currently working on the stealth fighter project that would produce the F-117 Nighthawk. By 1976, Lockheed's stealth testing, as part of the Have Blue Project, led to the belief that a large stealth bomber could be created.

Additional studies followed in 1978 and the following year the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) program was initiated. A fully black project, ATB received proposals from combined teams at Lockheed-Rockwell and Northrop-Boeing. In creating ATB designs, both teams elected to utilize a flying wing configuration. On October 20, 1981, the design from Northrop was selected and designated B-2 Spirit.

B-2 Spirit - Design:

Flown by a crew of two, Northrop's design was powered by four General Electric F118-GE-100 engines which were situated deep within the B-2's wing to minimize their radar and infrared signatures. The B-2's minimal radar signature (approx. 0.1 square meter) was achieved through the use of a variety of composite materials, special coatings, and the aircraft's shape. By utilizing a flying wing design, Northrop eliminated many of the leading edges which could make the bomber visible to radar. Capable of flying approximately 6,900 miles, the B-2 was designed for long duration missions and includes a toilet and small kitchen facility. As computers control many of the aircraft's systems, only one crew member needs to be on duty at a time, allowing the other to sleep or perform other tasks.

Possessing a large payload, the B-2 can carry up to eighty 500 lb. JDAM GPS-guided bombs or sixteen B83 nuclear bombs. In addition, it is capable of carrying a variety of standoff weapons such as cruise missiles. Targeting is aided by the aircraft's APQ-181 radar which can correct GPS errors and increase accuracy. While a black project, existence of the B-2's development was hinted at by President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential election. The aircraft was first publically displayed on November 22, 1988 at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, CA, with its first public flight taking place on July 17 of the following year.

B-2 Spirit - Cost:

An immensely expensive project, the B-2 Spirit program's research and development cost was approximately $23 billion by the time it first flew in 1989.

The US Air Force originally planned to acquire 132 aircraft, but this order was later reduced to 75. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in 1991, the B-2 Spirit's primary mission was eliminated. As a large fleet of nuclear bombers capable of penetrating Soviet airspace was no longer needed, President George H.W. Bush announced in 1992 that only twenty aircraft would be built. Four years later, it was decided to convert one of the prototypes into an operational aircraft for a cost of around $500 million which would increase the fleet to twenty-one.

Throughout the 1990s, Northrop and advocates of the aircraft lobbied to increase B-2 fleet by an additional twenty aircraft. Possessing a procurement cost of $737 million per aircraft in 1997, the B-2 was deemed too expensive by many in Congress and the USAF leadership. Key military leaders argued against expansion stating that additional B-2 procurement would jeopardize their ability to continue to develop more conventional and versatile aircraft. Despite the Pentagon's desire to halt production, the topic was hotly debated in Congress before procurement funding was finally cut. Though production was halted, funding has consistently been provided to update the existing fleet of B-2s.

B-2 Spirit - Operational History:

The first operational B-2 Spirit, Spirit of Missouri, was delivered to Whiteman Air Force Base, MO on December 17, 1993. Additional aircraft were delivered through November 1997 when the type officially became operational. Based at Whiteman, the B-2 fleet has proved expensive to maintain due to the complexity of the aircraft's systems and airframe, as well as its need to be housed in air-conditioned hangars to preserve its radar-reflecting/absorbing skin. In 1999, the B-2 became the second stealth aircraft to see combat (the F-117 flew during the 1991 Gulf War) when it took part in Operation Allied Force over Kosovo. Flying long, non-stop missions from Whiteman, B-2s debuted GPS satellite-guided JDAM weapons and were responsible for destroying 33% of Serbian targets during the opening eight weeks of the conflict.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the B-2 began flying missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. With the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, B-2s began flying strikes against Iraqi targets. These missions were launched from Whiteman as well as forward operating locations such as Diego Garcia, Andersen Air Force Base (Guam), and RAF Fairford (Britain). On February 23, 2008, a B-2 was lost after crashing during takeoff from Andersen Air Force Base. While the crew survived, the aircraft was a total loss. The cause of the crash was attributed to moisture in the aircraft's port transducer units during air data calibration which led to faulty information being sent to its onboard computers.

Operated by the 509th Bomb Wing, the B-2 was shifted to the new Air Force Global Strike Command in late 2009. In March 2011, the B-2 returned to action as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn over Libya. Working to enforce an UN-mandated no-fly zone, three B-2s attacked a Libyan airfield near Sirte on March 20. These were the first US aircraft to take part in the conflict.

Selected Sources