Opinion: A peek inside the B-2 bombers sent to Guam as a warning to North Korea
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has said the U.S. is “fully prepared” to defend itself against North Korea. This comes after the hermit state has repeatedly refused to stop developing its nuclear arsenal, despite United Nation sanctions.
North Korea’s show of force in a February military parade featured Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missiles, along with the accompanying mobile launchers. These missiles, Pyongyang claims, are fully capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
The U.S. in turn deployed three Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit strategic stealth bombers to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. While these radar-evading stealth bombers date back to the 1980s, don’t kid yourself into believing they are outdated.
The majority of its systems have been overhauled and updated throughout the years, pushing the cost well past the initial $2.8 billion price tag to design and build the planes in the days when the Soviet Union was the biggest threat to the U.S. As you will see, each can still pack quite a punch.
The plane, at 69 feet long, 17 feet high with a wingspan of 172 feet, is the only aircraft that can carry large ASMs (air-to-surface missile) in a stealth configuration. To remain hidden from tracking systems, stealth bomber employs a variety of techniques (also known as multispectral camouflage). Its engines are buried within its wings, which minimizes the heat signature generated by the exhaust, and hides their fans at the same time. Especially interesting is the gap below the engine’s air intake. Its purpose is to suck in cool air, which is then combined with hot air from exhaust, reducing the temperature of the resulting mixture. Together, this reduces B-2’s infrared visibility.
There’s the obvious lack of afterburners, which would reveal the aircraft during the supersonic flight and increase its overall infrared signature due to the excess heat produced by the exhaust, as well as the aerodynamic heating.
The aircraft comes with a “flying wing” (a tailless aircraft with no clearly discernible fuselage) configuration that provides low drag and significantly reduces radar profile because it lacks angles that may reflect radar waves. To amplify this effect, B-2 design employs a series of curved areas across its surface (a technique also known as “continuous curvature”), designed to deflect radar beams.
To reduce optical visibility, the aircraft is painted with an anti-reflective paint. Its underside is dark gray, because that color blends with the background sky at high altitudes (50,000 feet). It also has a special contrail sensor that warns the pilot to change altitude to minimize the resulting vapor.
Most of the vehicle’s body is made of carbon-graphite composite material that is not only stronger-than-steel and lighter-than-aluminum, but it’s also RAM, or Radar-Absorbent Material, which means it absorbs or neutralizes radar beams. This adds another layer of protection against beams that sometimes reflect off its surface. Finally, the airplane is covered with a special radar-absorbent coating known as AHFM, or Alternate High Frequency Material.
Since it’s a flying wing aircraft, the B-2 requires additional stabilization to ensure optimal flight capability. This is accomplished by using a specialized computer-controlled fly-by-wire flight control system that translates pilot inputs into complex movements of flight surfaces and settings. The stealth bomber is also equipped with AN/APQ-181 — a low probability of intercept radar system that provides a series of subsystems capable of low-flight assistance, navigation and target tracking at very high speeds, as well as target assessment and GPS.
Finally, a B-2 bomber can carry heavy-duty ordnance: 40,000 pounds of payload can include B61 and B63 nuclear bombs and AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles.
When outfitted with conventional weaponry, the B-2 mostly relies on its GATS, or GPS-Aided-Targeting-System, which enables the bomber to launch “smart” bombs on previously mapped targets. The aircraft can carry up to 80 of these guided bombs.
Its conventional armaments aside, the B-2 is the only stealth bomber that can employ MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator), the world’s largest nonnuclear weapon, also known as “bunker buster”. As its nickname says, it’s designed to hit hardened targets, bunkers, and locations deep underground, burrowing through 200 feet of earth and 60 feet of concrete before detonating.
B-2 aircraft were used for the first time in 1999 during Kosovo War. They dropped a total of 500 bombs, destroying 33% of Serbian targets in the first eight weeks of involvement. The latest deployment was on Jan. 18, 2017, when they flew sorties over Libya, killing approximately 100 militants.
If you think the B-2 is awe-inspiring, wait until you hear about its successor, the B-21, which is planned to enter combat service by 2025. This, however, is a topic for another day.
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