The sole stealth bomber unit in the United States Air Force, and by extension in all of NATO, has remained non operational for over ten days after Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri saw its sole runway closed on December 10. That day one of the B-2 bombers at the base was seriously damaged and caught fire in an accident. Only 20 B-2s are currently in service, one of which was is a prototype modified for combat operations, after issues with the aircraft led to production being cut from 120 to just 20 airframes – with the 20th serial production airframe having been destroyed in an accident in 2008. The latest B-2 accident, which closely follows another more minor crash in September 2021, has led to the entire fleet being put on a safety pause which is expected to outlast the closure of Whiteman Air Force Base’s runway. It remains uncertain whether recently damaged B-2s will be returned to service, or whether the $2 billion aircraft may be considered for early retirement as their replacement the B-21 comes closer to becoming operational.
Although the costs of repairing the two damaged B-2s, and particularly that from the more recent accident, are expected to be high, the bomber class provides unique capabilities due to its ability to penetrate well defended enemy airspace and drop gravity bombs – something the older B-52 and B-1B bombers cannot do due to their lack of stealth capabilities and resulting high vulnerability. The continued viability of the B-2’s stealth, however, has increasingly been called to question as improvements to the counter stealth capabilities of U.S. adversaries leave the technologies of the bomber’s era increasingly far behind. The B-2’s successor the B-21 is expected to improve on its incredibly high maintenance requirements and operational costs which have been the bane of the program, but will also be restricted to a much shorter range and to approximately half the weapons payload. While the B-21 is expected to form between five and ten units in the U.S. Air Force, and possibly serve in the fleets of American allies such as Australia, for the B-2 the vulnerability caused by having just a single operational unit remains a key impediment to its reliability particularly at a time of high geopolitical tensions. B-21 development has faced significant delays, with a first flight previously expected to take place in 2020 but now scheduled for 2023. The length of time at which the B-2 unit has been taken out of action raises questions regarding the viability of America’s stealth bomber capability in wartime as adversaries’ ability to strike airbases with cruise and ballistic missiles continues to expand – potentially creating far more serious issues than a runway blockage should a base be targeted in a war’s early stages.