At a time of heightened tensions in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. Air Force has ordered an indefinite “safety pause” for the entire fleet of its long-range B-2 Spirit stealth bombers.
The Air Force decision comes after a B-2 Spirit experienced an in-flight malfunction during routine operations on Dec. 10, forcing it to make an emergency landing, following which the stealth bomber caught fire.
The order to stand down has significant implications for the U.S. as geopolitical tensions with Russia and China are high. The B-2 has been regularly deployed to the Indo-Pacific and more recently to Europe as a show of force, the Associated Press reported.
Although there are fewer than 20 stealth bombers in the entire fleet, the B-2 Spirits is a critical part of the U.S. nuclear triad.
Following the incident on Dec. 10, Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Global Strike Command, ordered the “safety pause” to inspect the entire fleet, said a report by Defense One, which quoted an email from Master Sgt. Beth Del Vecchio of Bomb Wing Public Affairs.
“At this time, there is no speculated end date for the safety pause. Every incident is unique, and we are currently evaluating what went wrong and how we can mitigate future risk. We will resume normal operations once a safety investigation has been concluded,” Del Vecchio reportedly told Defense One.
Meanwhile, the runway at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, which is the home base of the B-2 fleet, also remains closed since the Dec. 10 incident. Teams are “working around the clock” to ensure the runway becomes operational.
The 509th Bomb Wing, the unit that operates the B-2 Spirit, had hinted about the safety pause in a statement issued Friday. The unit announced B-1B Lancer bombers would replace the B-2s for the traditional flyover at the 2023 Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game in California’s Pasadena on Jan. 2. The B-2 flyover has kicked off the parade since 2005.
“Our number one concern is the safety and security of our personnel and fleet. We deeply regret having to make this decision so close to the event, but we are committed to returning to Pasadena in 2024,” U.S. Air Force Col. Daniel Diehl, 509th Bomb Wing commander was quoted in the statement. “Although we are not participating in this flyover, we remain steadfast in our commitment to answer our nation’s call,” he added.
In September 2021, another B-2 at Whiteman was forced to make an emergency landing due to hydraulic system failure that led to landing gear collapsing. Following the emergency landing, the aircraft’s left wing dragged on the ground for about a mile before the aircraft came to a halt, resulting in at least $10 million in damage to the aircraft.
Designed and developed during the Cold War under extreme secrecy, the black, bat-like B-2 is currently the most expensive aircraft ever built.
Considered the best bomber ever built, the B-2 Spirit is reserved for use against high priority targets. With sensors, avionics and electronic warfare systems that remain classified, the U.S. has never offered the aircraft for sale to any other country, even NATO allies.
What makes the B-2 special is that it is almost invisible to radars due to its sophisticated design and radar-absorbent coating. The bomber is capable of flying over 12,000 km (approx. 7456 miles) without the need to refuel. The aircraft has a combat payload of about 18,000 kg (approx. 39,683 lbs), enabling the bomber to carry a wide array of weapons including cruise missiles, nuclear and precision-guided bombs.
However, given its exorbitant price and the fact that its introduction in 1989 coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, questions were raised about the need for an expensive and heavy bomber.
The B-2 will be replaced by the B-21 Raider, which was unveiled on Dec. 2. However, with the B-21 scheduled to undertake its first flight next year, it is still years away from entering services, which makes the small fleet of B-2s critical for the Air Force as its only stealth strategic bombers.