The U.S. Air Force has seen its B-2 Spirit stealth bomber fleet further depleted following an accident at Whiteman Air Force Base on December 10, with reports emerging on December 13 that the aircraft involved suffered damage after experiencing an “in-flight malfunction during routine operations” including an onboard fire. This follows a prior emergency landing in September 2021 which took another B-2 out of service, with both bombers expected to require several years of maintenance if they are ever to be brought back into service. The sole runway at Whiteman has since remained closed, meaning the entire remainder of the B-2 fleet will be unavailable for operations. Whiteman is home to the 509th Bomb Wing where all B-2s are primarily based, with the unit of 20 aircraft representing the only stealth bomber wing in NATO due to deep cuts to B-2 production from 120 jets to jus one sixth that number. Costing over $2 billion each, the bombers’ very high operational costs and maintenance needs as well as their wide ranging performance issues were key factors in the decision to scale back production despite significant expenses already having been sunk into research and development.
The B-2’s maintenance requirements mean they cannot be based outside the United States, while the small size of the fleet means it has often been thinly stretched due to the high demand for its unique capabilities on multiple fronts. The problematic bombers are expected to be phased out of service years ahead of schedule in the 2030s as the newer B-21 Raider is brought into service. The B-21 will make its first flight in 2023, after over two years of delays, and promises to provide an aircraft with more modest maintenance needs, superior stealth capabilities, and the ability to deploy much more widely including from overseas bases – although its range and payload will be significantly lower than those of the more expensive but older B-2. Where the B-2 was developed with strikes against the Soviet Union primarily in mind, and subsequently played a key role in plans for possible strikes on North Korea or Iran due to its access to unique ‘bunker buster’ penetrative bombs, the B-21 was designed primarily for the Pentagon’s plans for a possible conflict with China.