Two B-2 bombers departed Guam 2 April 1998 after successfully completing their first deployment to a forward operating location. During their 10-day stay at Andersen AFB, men and women of the 509th Bomb Wing from Whiteman AFB, Missouri, along with two B-2s, tested every aspect of what it took to operate and maintain the bombers away from their home station. Just months after receiving the first jets in their final Block 30 configuration, the 509th BW validated the new dimension of being able to fight from a forward location to its combat capability. Because the hangars at Andersen AFB suffered severe damage in super typhoon Paca, at least one of the bombers sat in the open at all times, alternately being baked under the hot sun and being drenched by the driving rain storms of the South Pacific. Most maintenance, including that of low-observable coatings, was performed outdoors. The tropical weather had little, if any, effect on the maintenance and operations of the aircraft. The bombers achieved 100 percent sortie success rate, accumulating nearly 90 flying hours prior to returning to the States.
On 6 August 1998 the 509th Bomb Wing commander temporarily suspended peacetime training missions for the B-2 Spirit. This temporary suspension did not impact the 509th Bomb Wing's combat capability. The suspension was the result of a potential problem associated with initiators, which operate the air crew ejection system. The manufacturer discovered the potential flaw in the initiators during routine acceptance testing. Each B-2 has eight initiators and all initiators were replaced as a safety precaution. Each aircraft resumed peacetime training as soon as replacement parts were installed and inspections were complete. B-2 Bombers resumed normal flying operations on 10 August 1998.
The B-2 stealth bomber made its operational debut 24 March 1999 when two Spirits dropped 32 2,000-pound joint direct-attack munitions during a 31-hour, nonstop mission from Whiteman Air Force Base. The B-2 was the only operational aircraft used to deliver JDAMs. The combination of its all-weather precision capability and the B-2's ability to penetrate lethal defenses put high-value fixed targets at risk. Over the course of Operation Allied Force, 45 B-2 sorties by a total of six aircraft delivered 656 JDAMs on critical targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Extensive tanker support was needed to refuel B-2s flying global attack sorties. Each plane had to be refueled multiple times during its sortie. While such capability is essential for rapid employment in any scenario, forward basing would substantially reduce tanker requirements, reduce sortie length (simplifying everything from mission preparation to crew fatigue), and allow the assets to be utilized at a greater rate. Forward basing remains the optimum employment scheme for all long-range platforms.
In June 2000 more than 90 members of the 509th Bomb Wing deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, on a 12-day global power mission for the B-2. The operation was called Coronet Spider. While at Andersen, the 509ers became the 325th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron to practice flying operations from a forward operating location and test new capabilities for the stealth aircraft. The EBS was named the 325th because it was primarily made of members from the 325th Bomb Squadron. The rest of the expeditionary force was made up of airmen from the 509th Security Forces Squadron, 393rd BS, 509th Operations Support Squadron and various members of the wing. The mission plan included 14 sorties, eight of which were flown from the forward operating location in Guam. The expeditionary squadron had only three B-2s for the 14 sorties. The eight missions that were flown on location lasted an average of 10 hours. These 10-hour sorties from Guam would probably be 40- to 45-hour sorties if they had been flown from Whiteman AFB.
With the number of overseas bases shrinking, it was likely that future combat missions would takeoff from Whiteman, strike targets, and either land back at Whiteman or at another base. During Kosovo the B-2 averaged 30-hour missions and at that time the furthest commanders felt comfortable pushing pilots was to a 40-hour sortie. In May 2001 four pilots conducted the longest B-2 simulator mission in history, a 50-hour flight in the B-2 Weapon System Trainer. The simulator mission was based on real-world targets and threats. The pilots flew from Whiteman, in-flight refueled six times, struck targets and landed at an overseas base. Crews could not leave the simulator once it started. Everything the pilots needed for a real mission had to be in the WST with them. Helmets, ejection seat harnesses, maps, food, water and sleeping bags had to be packed into the cramped 10-foot by 10-foot full-motion B-2 cockpit simulator. A chaise lounge chair for sleeping and a small dry chemical toilet, similar to those used for camping, were also used.
During Operation Enduring Freedom the B-2 flew a total of six missions on the first three days of the war. Each sortie took 70 hours, including the flight to Afghanistan, a turn-around at Diego Garcia for a new crew, and the flight back to Whiteman. Of the 21 B-2s, a total of 55 percent were mission-capable when the bombing began on 7 October 2001, though by November 2001 the mission-cable rate fell to 49 percent.
The Air Force goal was to have aircraft available for combat 60 percent of the time. Much of the B-2 maintenance time was devoted to removing blemishes from its radar-absorbing skin. The B-2 fleet was available for combat duty 31 percent of the time during 2001, down from 37 percent the previous year. As of June 2002, the 21 B-2s had only a 42 percent mission-capable rate, meaning just eight or so planes were ready to perform at least one of their assigned operational missions. Inability to meet stealth requirements was the single greatest driver for the low B-2 readiness rates. The aircraft's composite skin needs time-consuming repairs before it can meet standards. Were low-observability requirements not a factor, the plane would remain relatively ready, boasting a rate closer to 80 percent mission-capable.
The Air Force was undertaking a B-2 "mission-capable rate improvement plan," crafted by Northrop Grumman. This was intended to replace the traditional tape and caulking material repair method with a new approach using spray-on, radar-absorbing coating. Thought the new method promises to save time and money, the plan is to introduce it slowly over a period of seven years as B-2s cycle through depot.
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