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NORTHROP B-2A - The 70 Billion Dollar Bomber?
Australian Aviation, March 1990
by Carlo Kopp
© 1990 Carlo Kopp

Northrop's batlike B-2A Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) has become the focus of a political debate of an intensity unseen since McNamara's management debacle with the GD F-111 program. The principal issue is one of cost versus benefit, the US$70 billion tag for the program is seen by critics to be totally inappropriate given the perceived utility of the aircraft.
The issues at hand are however not quite as trivial nor as clear cut as many would have us believe and it is for this reason that Australian Aviation will take a somewhat closer look at this program.

B-2A operating out of Guam, May 2005

B-2A - the Historical Context
The development program for the B-2 was initiated with RFPs in 1981, won by a Northrop/Boeing team. The Carter administration revealed the existence of this otherwise most secret program to fend off critics who questioned the cancellation of the overdue B-52 replacement, the B-1A. The Rockwell B-1A reflected the penetration strategy of the late sixties, seventies and eighties, driven by the Russians' inability to produce anything approaching an effective lookdown/shootdown air intercept radar/missile suite. First implemented in the F-111, this strategy involves terrain following penetration at several hundred feet AGL and 500 kt class speeds, using sophisticated onboard jammers to deceive or jam defending radar based weapon systems.

With planned deployment by the late seventies a fleet of 240 B-1As armed with free fall nukes and SRAM nuclear defence suppression missiles would have spearheaded SAC's manned bomber force. This never materialised as the Carter administration promptly cancelled the program, committing to the Stealthy ATB in the long run and the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) in the shorter term.

The initial stated objective of the ATB program was the design of a stealth technology bomber with a Radar Cross Section (RCS) so low, that a radar based air defence system could neither detect it nor intercept it. Penetration would take place at medium to high altitude, conferring advantages in standoff missile range, payload/radius performance and airframe fatigue life. Deployment was planned for the early 1990s.

The Carter administration's strategy suffered fundamental limitations, as it failed to address the inevitable and expected Soviet development effort in Over The Horizon Backscatter (OTHB) radar, lookdown/shootdown radar and missiles and Airborne Early Warning (AEW) system design. Too many valuable strategic targets were so deep inside the USSR's landmass that penetration would be required to hit them and the B-52 would clearly not be up to the task by the late 1980s.

Ronald Reagan subsequently reinstated the B-1 in its multirole Bravo model, legislating for a crash build of 100 airframes as a strategic gapfiller until the ATB became combat capable. These aircraft were unlike the dual role B-1A optimised for low altitude subsonic penetration on strategic and theatre missions, nuclear and conventional. The airframe program was a major success story, although much publicised difficulties have since emerged with the hi-band jamming subsystem of the aircraft's massive 107 module Eaton/AIL ALQ-161 Electronic Warfare system(see TE March 1987). It is worth noting that the complaint is centered on the performance of a jammer subsystem conceptually designed in the late seventies against then known threats, and now deemed to be inadequate against the high density threat environment of the nineties. Other subsystems have also been subjected to hostile media coverage although in these instances the criticism cannot be technically substantiated.

B-2A Rollout

While these events transpired, Northrop quietly worked away at the ATB. The aircraft was a four engined flying wing, shaped for minimum RCS and skinned with radar absorbent materials. The engineering of the ATB was a task of monumental proportions, as it involved the development of approximately 900 new skin and structural materials, associated manufacturing processes and component fabrication processes all in addition to the tasks of airframe, propulsion and system design.

The design of the airframe alone was itself no mean feat, as RCS was as important a parameter in the design as aerodynamics and structures. This required a fundamentally new approach in design, involving massive computer simulations and modelling of RCS and aerodynamics before any hardware could be prototyped.

B-2A Production

Northrop invested over US$1 billion in facilities and equipment to design and build the ATB. An F-111 program style strategy of building prototypes to production standards with production tooling was adopted, almost necessitated by the need for extreme accuracy, quoted as being within 1/4" wingtip to wingtip.

The development program was kept black until 1989, when limited release of information revealed more about the top secret program. Significantly the USAF revised the aircraft role in the mid eighties to include the low level penetration mission, probably in response to the Russian OTHB effort. This resulted in the complete redesign of the wing, which was said to have benefitted the overall design in other areas at a cost of at least 12 months delay to first flight. The ATB was designed to Mil-Std-1760 to accommodate any conventional munition relevant to the aircraft's mission. The B-2A will carry a payload of 50,000 lb of munitions with a quoted unrefuelled operating radius of 3,000 n.mi. and a single refuelled radius of 5,000 n.mi.

B-2A releasing eighty Mk.82 500 lb bombs

Beyond any doubt the B-2A is one of the aeronautical/systems engineering marvels of the century and a historical milestone of major proportions in integrated airframe/systems design.
Endorsement by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and strong support by trade journals in the US clearly illustrates that this perception is shared by industry experts, it is therefore all the more interesting that this aircraft is subject to such sustained political attack.

We will therefore attempt to summarise and discuss the respective cases for and against the aircraft to place the debate in some perspective.

The Case for the B-2

The USSR has deployed a generation of true lookdown/shootdown fighter aircraft, the Fulcrum, Flanker and Foxhound, supported by capable Mainstay AEW and OTHB. These are backed by a new generation of tactical and strategic SAMs, the SA-10, SA-11 and SA-12 all of which have high kill probabilities against low flying targets. The adoption of modern digital signal processing techniques over the coming decade will further consolidate these capabilities.

Soviet economic reforms may be successful and as a result, a return to hardline Stalinism may occur (cf Lenin's NEP program or more recently, Beijing May/June 1989), with a resulting improvement in the ability to deploy and sustain the deployment of new technologies. To add to SAC's commitments, many Third World nations are acquiring substantial military capabilities with modern Western and Eastern Bloc equipment (eg India).

Against these potential threats SAC can muster a force of about 150 B-52G, 100 B-52H and about 100 B-1B. By the late 1990s these aircraft will be readily detectable and vulnerable to fighter attack. Their considerable jamming capability may be defeated by newer radar and optical fire control technology. In a protracted conventional or nuclear conflict the force would be depleted well before substitute aircraft could be manufactured.

In this threat scenario there are two major ways in which SAC can respond. The first is by deploying greater numbers of advanced versions of existing aircraft, or by a major technological leap to bypass the existing/projected threat. The ATB with its low RCS does the latter. By virtue of low RCS the ATB should defeat all Soviet radar based weapon systems in place, thus defeating not only the current generation of equipment but also cancelling out 50 years of cumulative PVO-S infrastructure development.

ATBs equipped with defence suppression weapons (Anti Radiation Missiles, standoff bombs) could thus open up corridors through PVO defences allowing the B-1 and B-52 to penetrate to otherwise inaccessible targets. The ability of the ATB to penetrate undetected could be utilised to attack very high value and well defended strategic targets such as nuclear warfighting command posts and Launch Control Centres (LCC), or alternately to search for and destroy mobile ICBMs which cannot be targeted by conventional SLBMs, ICBMs or Cruise Missiles. In the opening phases of a nuclear conflict the ability to cripple the opponent's command and control network can determine the outcome of the engagement, while destroying otherwise secure mobile ICBMs in turn cripples the second strike retaliatory force.

In a theatre role the ATB would be well suited to one-off surprise raids such as the Libyan strike, reducing the number of aircraft required to a handful of B-2As and their supporting tankers, all flying from the continental United States. This aspect of using the B-2A should not be underestimated, as the US has few allies with the committment of the UK or Australia, as evidenced by the Libyan events. The aircraft's range and sensor/weapons capability will allow it to provide

heavy bombing and minelaying support for US Navy units operating against coastal or maritime targets, much like the B-52G does today .

In summary the ATB should offer the capability to defeat the current and past generations of radar based equipment thus forcing the USSR to completely rebuild its air defence infrastructure and inventory. To this must be added a substantial increase in the degrees of freedom available to the theatre and strategic strike planner, who can hit heavily defended targets with a minimum of support aircraft thus improving the chance of surprise and success while reducing the likelihood of losing airframes. Production of the ATB will provide a materials and fabrication technology base for the next generation of tactical aircraft, which will thus be able to incorporate stealth technologies at competitive costs. The modest number of ATB airframes planned will not require major changes to the SAC force structure with crews transitioning from the B-52G/H as the older airframes are phased out.

The Case Against the B-2

The case against the B-2 derives from several arguments. The first argument is that Soviet economic reforms will lead to a more benign government in the USSR and thus that there is little need for the deployment of an aircraft specifically targeted at defeating the Soviet's largest single infrastructure item.

Another major argument raised is that the aircraft, if capable of performing its stealthy penetration role against high value targets, would be destabilising as it could encourage the US to execute a first strike at Russian command/control/communications facilities in any confrontation of that scale, thus precipitating a full scale nuclear exchange.

An argument from the opposite perspective is that the aircraft will be detectable by Russian air defences using OTHB and AEW, if not detecting the B-2s then definitely detecting their tankers, and thus the B-2A will offer little additional capability in comparison with cheaper conventional aircraft. Given the immense overhead costs in the ATB program, critics have suggested that the money be better spent on more conventional aircraft. The principal alternative suggested has been the purchase of further B-1Bs , with manufacturer Rockwell suggesting a unit cost of US$195M, although USAF estimates place this figure closer to US$228M, cf US$274M for a single B-2A.

Other alternative uses suggested for the money include tactical aircraft, considering that the estimated US$70B could buy of the order of 1500 F-15s or 2500 F-16s. This argument has become very attractive with the Bush administration's indiscriminate cuts to tactical aircraft procurement.

The remaining argument is one of whether the aircraft can successfully hunt down mobile ICBMs, with critics charging that the satellite/datalink targeting system is vulnerable to jamming and AntiSATtelite (ASAT) weapons. At it cannot perform this important role, the expense of building it is unjustified.

Su-27 Flanker. The impressive teen series class Flanker has a true lookdown/shootdown weapon system, augmented with infrared/laser fire control to defeat high power jamming by penetrating bombers. Supported by Mainstay AEW this aircraft can now seriously threaten both the geriatric B-52G/H and the seventies technology B-1B.

Rockwell B-1B. The superb B-1B is the ultimate embodiment of the seventies penetration strategy pioneered by the F-111 family. The IA-PVO's massed deployment of the lookdown/shootdown Foxhound, Fulcrum and Flanker supported by OTHB and AEW has severely eroded much of the advantage conferred by terrain following flight at 200 ft AGL and thus the B-1B will gradually assume the role of cruise missile carrier as the B-52G/H is shifted to theatre and maritime operations.

Northrop B-2A. The low radar cross section B-2A obsoletes 50 years of PVO infrastructure and equipment development in a single decade. Its stated primary mission is the destruction of high value strategic targets such as nuclear warfighting command posts, launch control centres and ICBM silos, with a secondary role of hunting down mobile ICBMs. Other roles no less important are strategic defence suppression, conventional strike and maritime operations.

Boeing B-52G. SAC's B-52G force is in the process of transition to a conventional theatre and maritime operations role. This will involve dropping Mk-82 500 lb and M-117 750 lb iron bombs, GBU-15 standoff glide bombs and Have Nap powered glide bombs on theatre targets, and the release of AGM-136A Tacit Rainbow anti-radiation drones against theatre air defences. Maritime operations include recce, minelaying and Harpoon strikes against shipping. Defence suppression and fighter escort will be provided by TAC and the USN respectively.

Who is Right and Who is Wrong?

The arguments for and against the B-2A reflect more than anything else the politics of the United States DoD where the services, much like in Canberra, fight tooth and nail for a bigger slice of the budgetary pie. The B-2A is a big slice and has thus drawn much fire, particularly from politicians with constituencies which would serve to benefit from ATB program cancellation. To these vested interests must be added cashflow hungry special interest groups and the opponents of US strategic power projection policy who are understandably concerned about the vast increase in military power afforded by the aircraft.

The case for the B-2A, key arguments of which have been stated by the USAF, is derived from 50 years of cumulative experience in air defence system penetration techniques. The arguments are both technically sound (see TE May 1987, and references [1],[2]) and a direct extension of existing Western air power doctrine. A very important point to stress here is that total radar invisibility is not necessary for the ATB to be successful in its role, primarily as a result of the Jam/Signal equation universally ignored by lay observers.

Reducing the RCS of an aircraft will reduce detection range to an inverse fourth power, while reducing jammer burnthrough range to an inverse square. The latter result is of major importance because the effectiveness of any jammer carried by a stealthy aircraft will be substantially enhanced, moreso than any gain in detection range performance. A major reduction in RCS in the upper (H,I,J) bands, combined with the use of jammers and carriage of standoff weapons will defeat those radar based weapons which are now becoming effective against the established B-52 and B-1B. The margin by which the ATB defeats existing defences will be a measure of its longevity.

It must be noted that detection by OTHB(HF) and low-band(VHF/UHF) radar may be of limited benefit to a defending side if a stealthy penetrator can defeat hi-band (ie H,I,J) fire control radars as the defender has lost the means of shooting down the aircraft, whether by fighter or SAM.

The impact of the ATB upon the PVO will be enormous, former US Defence Secretary James Schlesinger is quoted as follows:"[the ATB] makes obsolescent $200B worth of Soviet air defences". What is often overlooked is that the sum represents a cumulative effort over several decades of a somewhat stronger Soviet ecomomy.

Defeating the ATB will require development of new radar and optical fire control technology and deploying this technology, no mean feat by any standards and probably requiring 1-2 decades of effort to implement. The drain upon a weakened Soviet economy will necessarily slow down offensive weapons programs, a major benefit within itself.

The cost argument against the B-2 deserves some examination. Published figures indicate US$23B spent on Research and Development, with 132 x US$274M = cca US$40B for production with a total program cost estimated at US$70B in 1999 US dollars, this including some SAC infrastructure and support. Critics of the program have concentrated upon a resulting US$500M+ program unit cost, claiming the ATB is the most expensive aircraft ever built. This however represents no more than politically inspired creative accounting, as it amortises all stealth materials and production technology R&D and infrastructure costs against the B-2 alone.

The reality is that much of this technology will appear in the ATA, probably the ATF and certainly other future tactical and strategic programs. A more reasonable costing is (flyaway cost averaged at US$274M) + (B-2A specific R&D costs)/132 + (R&D costs on items usable in other stealth programs)x(fraction of said items used in B-2 program)/132. This makes some allowance for the R&D costs carried currently by the B-2 which are not being charged against future projects.

Needless to say this figure will yield a costing closer to the flyaway cost than the commonly quoted US$500M figure. A cost within 20% to 40% of the seventies technology B-1 is hardly an unreasonable figure. The argument in favour of purchasing more B-1B/C aircraft thus loses some of its potency, as the B-2's gains in radius performance and penetration capability balance the cost savings, from which must be subtracted the acquisition and infrastructure costs of additional tankers to support the enlarged B-1 force.

The cost vs benefit argument will thus have a tendency to devolve into the argument of whether the dollars could be better spent in other areas, such as tactical aviation. Assuming that were the case and the US$70B were assigned to TAC, it would be unlikely to translate into the 1000+ additional tactical jets simply due to the need for a massive infrastructure upgrade to support the additional airframes, systems and aircrew. It may well be strategically unsound to invest heavily in aircraft of a technological generation which has been matched if not beaten by a principal adversary, given that the Advanced Tactical Fighter (F-14/F-15 replacement) and Advanced Tactical Aircraft (A-6/F-111 replacement) are due this coming decade.

To place this argument in further perspective the USAF have furnished some interesting figures on the relative impact of strategic bomber procurement on the US defence budget. B-52 purchases between 1952-61 absorbed 1.4% of the total budget, B-1B purchases between 1982-86 absorbed 1.6% of the budget while B-2 procurement is projected to account for 1.3% of the budget between 1987-96.

The cost arguments levelled at the B-2 program are thus in perspective of questionable weight, given that SAC will regardless have to replace a substantial fraction of its B-52 force with new aircraft over the next decade or so to prevent a shortfall in strategic bombing capability. This hasn't however deterred political opponents of the program, particularly influential Democrats Levin and Aspin who have sought the cancellation or at least cutting down of the program. The latter has been interpreted as a means to the former, as the reduction in the number of airframes purchased will increase the program unit cost to the point where it will no longer be defensible politically, resulting in program cancellation.

This of course leaves the remaining arguments concerning the B-2's ability to perform its mission and the alternative position concerning its potential destabilising effect.

The latter argument has been raised by critics against virtually every new strategic weapon deployed. Where it has succeeded in killing a program or delaying deployment, the Soviets invariably closed the technology gap and thus brought the strategic balance closer to equilibrium and arguably instability. The simplistic viewpoint that balance will deter aggression is very popular, although it appears that in practice a major imbalance in capability is a better means of preventing confrontation, for obvious reasons. It follows that this is a rather lame argument.

To the former argument the USAF have stated that the primary mission of the aircraft is 'to penetrate the most sophisticated Soviet defences and threaten their most valued targets, whatever they may be '.In practice this would involve the destruction of ICBM silos, Launch Control Centres and Command Posts, with a secondary role of destroying mobile ICBMs and an additional conventional theatre/maritime role.

Vocal critics such as the Washington Union of Concerned Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists are quoted as criticising the B-2's ability to perform its 'primary mission' of hunting down mobile ICBMs and its vulnerability to PVO defences. An alternative suggested has been the purchase of more B-1Bs with advanced cruise missiles and mobile ICBMs to balance current Soviet capability.

If these quotes are accurate the nature of the criticism illustrates that the critics may not fully understand the target of the criticism. The B-2 was clearly conceived as a multirole penetrator with a major role to play in both strategic and theatre air operations and if anything its more esoteric nuclear roles have been pushed by the USAF to strengthen the case for the aircraft by emphasising those capabilities unavailable in any other aircraft. The USAF have openly stated that the B-2A is a 'multi-role bomber' which 'carries a substantial [nuclear ie B-61, B-83, SRAM I/II and conventional ie Mk36, Mk62, Mk82, M-117, naval mines] bomb load, has excellent range, and would be a superb bomber without its low observable characteristics '. It follows therefore that even if the aircraft cannot hunt down mobile ICBMs, it can still be utilised in a wide range of roles and thus this argument for cancellation is insufficient.

The strategy of isolating a single aspect of an issue and attempting to pick holes in it is a well established debating tactic, commonly practiced by politicians for whom it is daily bread and butter. The author however holds the view that this kind of debate can be dangerously irresponsible as it isolates many of the real issues from their native context. It is thus sad to see highly credible specialists in the hard sciences (or other disciplines for that) indulge in this sort of gaming with no respect for the professional expertise in defence penetration, electronic warfare, operations research, air war strategy and ultimately tactical airmanship required to clearly understand the implications of a program as complex and as far reaching as the ATB.

The author cannot help but recall a discussion some years ago with a research scientist who was adamant that chrome plating and polishing an ICBM would defeat all Star Wars laser beam weapons fired at the ICBM. And how joyous a world it would be if all things were so neat and simple...

This digression serves to stress the point that it can be most dangerous to to judge the merits of any major issue on the basis of any single aspect alone, reducing a complex issue down to naive arguments understandable by absolute laymen cannot result in an objective debate.

The high profile B-2 program is becoming the victim of this problem above all. Critics with political axes to grind manipulating 'expert' observers who lack any relevant technical knowledge, lay commentators isolating attention grabbing aspects of the program, and to add to the chorus, irresponsible and often hostile coverage by the lay media. We have seen it all before with the F-111, we have seen a lesser repeat with the F/A-18 and more recently the B-1B. The question remains. What is it about high technology high profile programs that invites so many laymen to assert with so much vigour criticism of so little relevance?

As a final thought on the matter, would all of these 'expert' critics maintain their hostile point of view, were they strapped into a creaking, bomb laden B-52G at 400 ft AGL inbound to Sverdlovsk?


  1. Fitts R.E.,'The Strategy of Electromagnetic Conflict', Peninsula Publishing, 1980.
  2. Ball R.E.,'The Fundamentals of Aircraft Combat Survivability Analysis and Design', Ch.6, Fig.6.25, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1985.

The author highly recommends the latter title as it provides a very readable overview of electronic warfare/defence penetration issues.

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