The Air Force’s B-2 deception

Officials were in no hurry to make clear that a 'minor' B-2 engine fire actually sidelined the bomber for years.

An Air Force B-2 Spirit sat idle on Guam for more than a year after an engine fire that officials first characterized as ‘minor,’ then revealed last week was so ‘horrific’ it will sideline the bomber for two more years. The story shows commanders’ sensitivities about tipping their hand too much about their strategic posture in the Western Pacific, but it also raises questions about just how ready the B-2 fleet actually is.

An Air Force official story last week described how the fire aboard the B-2 ‘Spirit of Washington’ was so destructive that the bird required extensive repairs and components normally installed during depot-level maintenance. And 18 months of work didn’t put it back on duty: It only got the B-2 to the point that it could limp from Guam to Palmdale, Calif., where it landed Aug. 16 for two years’ more work before it can rejoin the fleet. The Air Force’s story treated the airmen and Northrop Grumman engineers who brought the B-2 home as heroes, but still made it sound like a dicey proposition:

Once the aircraft was ready to again take the skies, the entire team outlined a comprehensive plan to fly the aircraft home. They established very strict controls on weight, altitude, and speed to lessen stress on the airframe. In-flight refueling was used to prevent ever having to take on the weight of a full load of fuel and a support aircraft followed along to assist the flight crew with avoiding turbulent weather and coordinate with air traffic control.

“The 141st Air Refueling Wing (ANG) deployed to Guam from Fairchild, Washington, and provided KC-135s for refueling and to serve as a support plane,” Colonel Williams said. “That allowed us to put a team of Northrop engineers in the support plane where they could monitor the aircraft’s performance and offer technical advice to deal with any issues.”

Fortunately for all, this “wounded warrior” took to the skies like the proverbial phoenix traveling the entire distance without incident and landing in Palmdale more than a month ahead of schedule. It now starts a 24 month [Programmed Depot Maintenance] process that will completely return this veteran to operational duty for the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Mo.

So — for more than a year, the Air Force was without one of its 20 B-2s, even though it physically remained ‘forward’ at the base from which it’s supposed to be ready for tasking. And although the service did announce the Spirit of Washington’s engine fire when it happened, it never made clear that the ‘minor’ mishap had put the bomber out of service.

Not surprising, given how secret the B-2s are and the strategic sensitivities in the Western Pacific, but it makes you wonder: Air Force Global Strike Command is supposed to be improving its ‘culture’ and getting serious about its strategic mission. What else should we know that its cloak of secrecy enables it not to tell?

h/t: The Diplomat