Warplanes: An Unprecedented Capability


June 21, 2007: The U.S. Air Force is installing new bomb racks in its B-2 bombers, that will allow them to carry 80 smart bombs (500 pound ones). To complement that, the B-2s are also getting Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. AESA systems consist of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. AESA type radars are popular mainly for their ability deal with lots of targets simultaneously. The B-2 AESA will enable the bomber to find targets itself, and use one of those 80 JDAMs to deal with it. Finally, the B-2 is getting a more powerful satellite datalink, that will enable it to more quickly share AESA or camera data with other aircraft (including UAVs). With 80 JDAMs, the air force sees the B-2 as a one aircraft bomber fleet, able to take out 80 different targets.

The B2 is a complex aircraft that was first used during 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign. It was difficult to keep operational because the radar deceiving skin of the aircraft requires a lot of maintenance. For each hour the B-2 is in the air, 53 man hours of maintenance were required. The air force likes to have 60 percent of its aircraft ready to fight, but for the B-2 only 33 percent are available. This has since been improved considerably, but the B-2 still requires more maintenance than other heavy bombers, like the B-52 or B-1.

The 181 ton B2 was in development throughout the 1980s and went into service in 1992. The B-2 is a combination of radically new and untried technology that was very advanced, very difficult to perfect and very, very expensive. Over $25 billion was spent before the B-2 even flew, and projected costs were over $70 billion for 132 aircraft. Only twenty were built by 1996, pushing the cost per plane over two billion dollars each. This means that three B-2s cost more than a nuclear aircraft carrier, and one B-2 cost more than half a dozen Peacekeeper ("MX") ICBMs and their hardened shelters. The B 2 can carry 20 tons of bombs for over 8,000 kilometers, or, with aerial refueling, anywhere on the planet. The stealth makes it possible for one B-2 to go places that would require a dozen or more aircraft to get through to. As a result, the air force is treating the B-2 more like a warship, that can quickly be sent anywhere on the planet, and unleash, in this case, 80 precision bombs. This is an unprecedented capability, which has not really been used yet. So far, it's been cheaper to send B-52s or B-1s to deliver smart bombs.


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