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The Military Transportation

Military Grounds Stealth Bomber Fleet 430

Ponca City, We Love You writes "America's entire B-2 stealth bomber fleet, which has played a crucial part in all major US conflicts since 1989, has been grounded after one of the jets crashed near a military base in Guam. The crash — the first involving the B-2 — was the most expensive single aircraft accident in history. (The planes cost $1.2B each.) Officials assume the crash was caused by either mechanical failure or human error, but have grounded all B-2s to ensure there is not some fundamental fault developing in the 21-strong fleet. The crash occurred Saturday morning local time as the B-2 was taking off from Andersen Air Force base on Guam, a US territory south of Japan. An Air Force spokesman said, 'The cause of crash is unknown, pending an investigation. The pilots had ejected safely — no serious injuries. One is mobile, one is still in the hospital under observation.'"
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Military Grounds Stealth Bomber Fleet

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:04AM (#22534272)
    It has been my lifes ambition to be modded down on slashdot. Please mod this post to -1. Thankyou.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Please mod me down (Score:1, Funny)

      I hate you all.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by melikamp ( 631205 )
      Meta-moderation -noun On Slashdot, any instance of referencing or suggesting a moderation for one's own post with an intention of manipulating moderator's judgement. Usually, a negative moderation is suggested, which is the opposite of the intended: "I know I will be modded down for this, but..." or "Goodbye karma...".
  • Crash (Score:5, Funny)

    by Bazman ( 4849 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:07AM (#22534284) Journal
    A stealth bomber crashes? Nobody saw that coming.

  • Stealth? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lobiusmoop ( 305328 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:09AM (#22534288) Homepage
    Maybe I'm being naive again, but what is the point of designing an untrackable aircraft and then telling the whole world its fleet status? Why is the B2 in the news at all? Or should I be reaching for a tinfoil hat?
    • How else is the US goverment going to convince it's citizens it's time to pony up the cash to produce the B3 ;) ? B2s are so last century after all!

      Besides, on a more serious note, I don't think the status of the fleet matters too much, it's a bomber at the end of the day and as far as I'm aware, the US doesn't need to do any bombing that requires a stealth approach at the moment. Any regime counting on doing something nasty that would require such a stealth bombing response by the US might just find itself
    • What tells you they do actually have 21 bombers?

      What tells you that it actually matters? Maybe the B2 isn't state-of-the-art anymore, and the US just doesn't care that much about the secrecy of this "archaic" plane?

      Besides, even if you know how many B2's might be flying, there's no way you can tell where they are until it's too late. I've read they even have kamikaze units now... :P
      • Re:Stealth? (Score:5, Funny)

        by ozmanjusri ( 601766 ) <aussie_bob AT hotmail DOT com> on Sunday February 24, 2008 @09:22AM (#22534712) Journal
        I've read they even have kamikaze units now.

        Apparently they're doing their training out near Guam...

      • Re:Stealth? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Taleron ( 875810 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @09:33AM (#22534782) Homepage

        When it comes to US military aircraft in general, they typically last for a long time. "State of the art" might be somewhat of an understatement if such a thing is possible due to crazy amounts of military spending and overall lack of many contesting forces in the skies even over the long term.

        The F-15 Strike Eagle rolled out in 1989, same year as the B-2; it remains an advanced "Air Superiority" fighter and it's planned to be in service until 2025.
        The F-14 Tomcat was just retired, after 30+ years in service.
        The A-10 Thunderbolt II (or "Warthog"), 1977, still in service (brief retirement).
        The F-4 Phantom went into production in 1960, ended in 1981, but the "Wild Weasel" variant was used even in the Gulf War. That's over 35 years, the longest of US jet aircraft.

        And dipping slightly out of theme, the UH-1 Huey was introduced in 1959. Though the Blackhawk replaced it, they are still occasionally dusted off for missions.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by thenetbear ( 1174379 )
          The B-52 has been in constant service since 1955, and is slated to continue active duty until 2040. They aren't being replaced either. The airframe is so solid that they are able to just keep upgrading rather than rebuilding from scratch.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by coredog64 ( 1001648 )
          The "Strike Eagle" is just an F-15 variant (F-15E). The F-15 has been in service since '76.
        • Remember the BUFFs! (Score:3, Informative)

          by tcgroat ( 666085 )

          The F-4 Phantom went into production in 1960, ended in 1981, but the "Wild Weasel" variant was used even in the Gulf War. That's over 35 years, the longest of US jet aircraft.
          The B-52 [wikipedia.org] will reach 53 years of operational service this June. This type has flown since the avionics used vacuum tubes. It is expected to remain in service until 2040!

    • by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:57AM (#22534550)
      It isn't as though this really changes anything. There aren't any nations that will go "Oh well with those aircraft gone we can certainly take the US! Their 12 carriers, hundreds of ICBMs and such aren't any worry at all!"

      You also have to remember that the planes aren't being destroyed or anything, just taken out of operation until they do a review. In the event of an emergency, they could be put right back in service. Also, the B2 isn't untrackable, it is just very hard to see on radar. It isn't invisible or anything. Any nation with reasonable satellite intelligence can easily keep watch on the bases (or maybe just base, they used to only fly out of Whiteman, not sure if that's still true) where they fly from and tell when they leave.

      The B2 is a stealth jet, and there certainly are some things about it that are classified, but it isn't as though it is some big secret anymore. You can go and see them at air shows and such. It generally isn't even secret what they are being used for. They are just high altitude bombers for whatever conflict the US happens to be in. They are only special in that they are extremely difficult to track on radar (and thus to get a missile to lock on) and that they have a truly world-wide range with refueling (and like a 6000 knot range even without).
      • by hughk ( 248126 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @09:38AM (#22534826) Journal
        According to this story [telegraph.co.uk], you can use the path disruption caused by stealthy aircraft flying through areas covered by mobile phone masts and fix the aircraft's position to within 10m or so. Apart from the mobile base station, the system sounds vehicle portable. The issue is that until they get to your territory, you won't be able to get advance warning.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Dun Malg ( 230075 )

          According to this story [telegraph.co.uk], you can use the path disruption caused by stealthy aircraft flying through areas covered by mobile phone masts and fix the aircraft's position to within 10m or so.

          Irrelevant. You're missing the point. Pretty hard to guide a SAM using that technique. The point of stealth isn't to keep people from knowing it's there (the explosions of the bombs are a dead giveaway), but to make it nigh-impossible to shoot down.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      The short answer is that you're being naive, no tin foil hat is needed. The B-2 is not untrackable, just difficult for radars to track. And our major adversaries have other information on its status. For example, China and Russia have spy satellites and can see that aircraft haven't left the hangers in a while. Or a spy can have a home near the runways and report back on how often they fly. Furthermore, an a airplane crash is difficult to hide. Since US policy is to ground all similar aircraft after a
    • Re:Stealth? (Score:4, Informative)

      by greyhueofdoubt ( 1159527 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @12:01PM (#22535784) Homepage Journal
      It may be related to the reason that the F-15 fleet grounding was also publicized: The air force is using these events as a bargaining chip to get funding. The F-15's probably could have been flying after a week or two of thorough inspections, but it was drawn out from early November to late January. This had the effect of showing congress:

      "See? See what happens when you force us to fly 30-year-old fighter aircraft? The defense of the nation is compromised because we can't afford new aircraft, and maintenance of the old aircraft uses up our entire budget. We need money NOW to buy NEW aircraft that will be more capable and cheaper in the long run to maintain."

      And they have a point. Many of you may double-take when you see the price tag of new fighters or bombers, but let me tell you: The cost of the airplane is matched at least bi-annually by fuel, munitions, and maintenance costs. The biggest one is maintenance. One example is the F-16. It is small cheap, relatively simple, and it only has one engine.
      A base flying around 18 F-16's will require manning of around 800 well-paid, full-time personnel (~$122,000 per day).
      JP-8 fuel is around $3/gallon, and if you fly 3 sorties of 6 aircraft each, with wing tanks, that's about 3*6*2000*$3=$54,000 worth of fuel PER DAY, 5 or 6 days per week.
      The regularly-scheduled phase tear-downs probably cost well into the millions in terms of parts alone.
      Add to this the infrastructure (the base itself, heat, vehicles, electricity, support facilities like RADAR, comm, etc).

      What I'm saying is that aircraft maintenance is a spendy affair. The cost of the actual aircraft makes up only a small portion of the air forces expenditures.

      This relates to your question in a roundabout way. The reason that it's not secret is that the air force is looking for new aircraft. The B-2 fleet is older than many slashdotters. They are INCREDIBLY labor-intensive to maintain. The new F-22 can take over many of the original roles of the B-2, yet congress is only funding a handful of new aircraft.

      The B-2 is a gorgeous machine, but we need to move to a more nimble, adaptable flight platform. Times change. We don't need to penetrate deep into soviet airspace to deliver massive quantities of nuclear ordnance anymore. We need aircraft that can be based out of forward operating locations, load up and scramble quickly, and change their mission in-flight and without compromising the aircraft or the crew. It also helps if the aircraft can fit into hardened hangars at the FOB. The F-22 fits the bill perfectly. The B-2 only flies out of its 2 bases for any mission. Yes, that's right- For a b-2 to fly a mission over Afghanistan, it takes off from Missouri, flies all the way there (subsonic), and returns to Missouri. The missions can take 24-36 hours. There are beds in the cockpit for a relief crew.

      That is why this is public. That, and everyone would know anyways. It's hard to keep a crash like this secret- You know, a huge airplane crashing in front of a bunch of people.

      -b
    • Re:Stealth? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Oswald ( 235719 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @03:31PM (#22537860)
      That's a cute question. They're untrackable when they want to be, but unless they're on a mission over enemy territory they file flight plans and turn their transponders on lest their billion-dollar selves end up in a midair collision. There's not a lot of work put into keeping their movements secret.

      Possibly funny story: when the FAA came out with the first generation of the Aircraft Situation Display (since superceded by the amazingly similar Traffic Situation Display), one of the filters available when selecting flights to display was "aircraft type". That lasted for a while, and then somebody giving a tour to some Air Force generals decided to impress them with the Agency's technowizardry and said "Wanna see where all your B52's are?" (This was almost 20 years ago--before the B2--and the B1's never go anywhere.) He made a couple entries on a keyboard and all the little airplane silhouettes dropped off except the B52's over the continental U.S. The generals promptly crapped themselves, and soon thereafter the FAA got a phone call from somebody important, and since then it's a little harder to track the bombers and the fighters. But not very hard.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by syousef ( 465911 )
      The B2 fleet is a deterent. The minute you have to drop a nuke you've lost. The threat is "Bomb us and we'll drop nukes. You can't stop us. You won't even see us coming." It's a bit hard to make that threat unless the enemy knows you're not bluffing.
  • Officials assume the crash was caused by either mechanical failure or human error
    As opposed to an enemy attack? I mean, the pilot was safe(so they already have heared him out) and I think we can safely rule out sabotage or an enemy attack. This seems entirely obvious.
  • More information (Score:2, Informative)

    by auric_dude ( 610172 )
    A reasonable write up over at http://blog.wired.com/defense/2008/02/b-2-crashes-on.html [wired.com]
  • by acherrington ( 465776 ) * <{moc.liamg} {ta} {notgnirrehca}> on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:42AM (#22534448)
    The B-2 Bomber [wikipedia.org] fleet is over twenty years old. Not the technology, but the entire fleet. We (congress) authorized the purchase and maintenance of these vehicles, but at some point they will need to be replaced. Now, not only that, but these planes fly 44 hour missions [bbc.co.uk], the longest on record. There are only, now, 21 of these planes left. Just under 5% of the fleet was lost in this one crash. At some point they will either need to retire the existing fleet and put in a new order, or expect the fleet to fall off one by one just like this. Still, we don't know if this was pilot failure or structural, but when you loose that much capability in one crash...it makes you think.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by gregoryb ( 306233 )
      There are only, now, 21 of these planes left.

      There are only 20 after this crash. They only built 21 operational B-2s.
  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:43AM (#22534458)
    It wasn't hit by falling bits off a classied satellite, was it?
  • Atlantic insight (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gstone ( 236734 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:45AM (#22534472) Homepage
    A very interesting [theatlantic.com] article was published in the Atlantic about the B2. The reporter spent some time living with the people who comprise the flight crew:

    A B-2 Spirit costs roughly as much as a fast-attack nuclear submarine or a guided-missile destroyer. But whereas a Los Angeles-class submarine requires a crew of 130 and an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer a crew of 320, the B-2 has a crew of just two: a pilot and a mission commander. There are only 21 B-2s in the Air Force. Nobody else in the U.S. military is entrusted with as much responsibility, in terms of sheer dollars, as these bomber pilots are. If a single B-2 were to go down, even in training, it would be a banner-headline story.

    So who are these guys?
  • Marginal Cost (Score:3, Informative)

    by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:50AM (#22534506) Homepage
    The marginal cost of the B2 bomber is substantially less than $1.2B. The problem is that if you only buy 20 aircraft, the cost per aircraft is inflated by the huge development cost of the aircraft. The original plan was to build 135 aircraft.

    Sometimes I wonder how much it would cost to build some more B52s. It's an ancient aircraft, but it does the job.

    • Re:Marginal Cost (Score:5, Informative)

      by Charcharodon ( 611187 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @09:10AM (#22534644)
      Operation wise a B-52 costs 2 1/2 time the hourly rate that a B2 costs to keep in the air.

      The only reason there are B52 still in service is because they built over 1000 of them orginally. It's not a particularyly good aircraft (maintenance wise), but by the shear number of airframes and spare parts it continues to serve.

      A B-52 replacement would only need to satisfy a "dump truck" roll. There are plenty of modern airframes that could be modified to fill that role at a considerably cheaper cost than keeping the B52's flying.

      • Re:Marginal Cost (Score:5, Informative)

        by Nimey ( 114278 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @11:19AM (#22535444) Homepage Journal
        The other reason why the B-52 is still in service: cruise missiles. The other two heavy bombers can't fire them. There's a study for sticking a rotary launcher in the B-1's bomb bay, but that's expensive and keeps getting delayed.

        Re maintenance: O RLY? The B-52 fleet has over 95% readiness rate, because they are a well-understood problem. The B-1 and B-2 have a far lower rate, on the order of 50 to 60%, because they are more complex and less mature (can't get more mature than a 50-year-old aircraft). Plus the '52 is easier to stick new ECM tech into, because the original ECM was so huge that there are nice big ECM bays in the aircraft, and more room equals more room for the ground crew to work; compare working on a stuffed microATX case versus a sparsely-populated full-tower ATX.

        Don't get me wrong, the Buffasaurus has its problems, but it's not as bad as you think.
        • Re:Marginal Cost (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Charcharodon ( 611187 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @03:08PM (#22537620)
          Actually that not true all three aircraft can fire cruise missiles, the only thing that keeps the B1 from doing so is a treaty with the former Soviet Union (Russia).

          It is as bad as I think because I've worked on all three bombers. The B-52 is robust much in the way an old pick-up truck is, things work because they're old school electronics. The only problem is that they're just like working on an old truck. If you need a replacement part alot of the time it meens a trip to the junk yard. I also got real sick real quick trying to trace down wiring problems on 50 year old wire bundles that are not necessarily wired the same on every aircraft. Of course while the newer digital aircraft are easier to fix, they can be nightmares when things don't show up on the diagnostics or don't hard break but fail erratically. That'll even have the engineers scraching their heads. Space wise I've only run into a few times where things were too cramped to work on. Typically of things that I'm sure some dumb ass design engineer said "They'll never need to get to that the plane is only going to be used for 20 years then replaced" Even the "brand new" B2 is over twenty years old

          To say the B-52 has extra space is an understatement since most electronics these days are hundreth the size they were in the sixties, but again most of the Buff's problems are not lack of space or the inability to be upgraded, it's just the simple fact they are freakin ancient.

          With the new weapon systems & munitions you don't need a specialized military aircraft to deliver them anymore. You just need something reliable that has a long endurance and can fly high.

          My ideal B-52 replacement would be a B-747-8, (New Boeing 747 model coming out out). It's a well vetted design, with commonly available off the shelf commercial parts. It could carry 105,000lbs of cargo (bombs) and a full load of fuel with an 8000 mile range. For those keeping count that's 210 Mk 82 bombs compared to the B-52's 51. Park two or three of those in a race track pattern at high altitude along with two extra flight crews each and you could keep them up there 24/7. Throw in a little air refueling and they'd stay on station until either they ran out of bombs or out of hot pockets and little debbies, which ever comes first.

  • About a decade off (Score:3, Informative)

    by Blackeagle_Falcon ( 784253 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:52AM (#22534514)
    "which has played a crucial part in all major US conflicts since 1989"

    This statement is incorrect by about ten years. The B-2 didn't make it's combat debut until 1999 during the Kosovo war.
  • by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @08:57AM (#22534552) Homepage
    It's not surprising at all that military aircrafts has some accidents now and then. They are designed to be the leading edge in technology to gain an advantage.

    In this case no one died, and the situation doesn't call for any immediate use of that plane so it's no big issue that the fleet is grounded.

    It's also important to consider that much of the technology that is developed for military aircraft will find its way into civilian aircraft in one way or another. Fly-by-wire, composite materials, titanium details etc. are all a result from the military development. And if the accidents happens with military aircraft where there usually is an ejection seat available it also means that the risk of killing a lot of people is decreased. OK, the ejection seat can fail, it can eject at the wrong moment or the plane can crash into a bad position and kill people. But if a flaw with a design feature can be found on such an aircraft and not be put into the next generation of passenger super-aircraft it can mean a lot.

    Of course it's bad that an expensive aircraft crashes, but it's still just money - and essentially the money is already paid and has already looped through the system a few times since. Leading edge tech is always expensive, but usually there are a lot of spinoffs coming through. Otherwise we would still be using artificial limbs using wood and hooks instead of carbon fiber structures, servo motors and computers for our handicapped. (OK, not everyone gets it but its coming through)

    Then you may ask what the use there is for a B2 bomber in the end. It is useful in some cases, but the original intent spurned from the cold war is actually no longer there. It sure is a long way better at what it is designed for than the B52, but the B2 is a highly specialized craft while the B52 actually has found some other secondary uses too, which I suspect that the B2 will never achieve. And don't forget that the stealth aircraft business is always a developing part - which means that as soon as someone is able to spot the B2 as easy as a B52 then it will effectively be as obsolete as the B52 - or actually even worse. So in that case the B2 has to be replaced with something new. And I suspect that such work is already in progress regardless of what is said.

    As for future military aircraft there is a high probability that they will be unmanned weapons carriers that gets updates from remote systems while still being able to function mostly autonomous. Such solutions will be cheaper per unit and still being able to pack a considerable punch. The disadvantage with such systems is that the picture sometimes changes by the minute in a battle and that means that they can end up doing the completely wrong thing. "Friendly fire - isn't". Of course - humans can also do that mistake so it's no real safeguard to have manned aircraft.

    But in all - in today's world the use for heavy weapons is very limited since most conflicts of today are no longer on the scale of nations but reduced to conflicts within nations or even small groups as terrorists and using a bomber in such situations is like using a sledge to eradicate cockroaches in a kitchen. The collateral damage will be too great. And it doesn't matter how great an army you have if you don't have the information to use that army. Failure to get the correct intelligence about your enemy is just leading to overall failure.

  • by thesazi ( 1245210 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @09:01AM (#22534574)
    It cost $1.7bn to replace the space shuttle Challenger. http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/information/shuttle_faq.html#1 [nasa.gov]
  • First, this is really not a big deal as aircraft are usually grounded after an unexplained crash. Second, the B-2 didn't exist in 1989. That F-117A which is being retired was our only stealth aircraft then. Two vastly different aircraft
  • by codename.matrix ( 889422 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @09:07AM (#22534626)
    ... if a stealth bomber crashes and nobody sees it does it make a sound?
  • 2.1 Billion ! (Score:4, Informative)

    by mark99 ( 459508 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @09:36AM (#22534812) Journal
    It is 2.1 billion, not 1.2 billion according to what I read http://www.fas.org/man/gao/nsiad97181.htm/ [fas.org]

    Someone else pointed out that the marginal cost is lower, but the cost of starting up the production line again might even make it higher.

    But if they only crash one ever 10 years, then we can probably hold out until the fully robitized versions designed and built in Bangladesh (or somewhere) get cheap...
  • by BigTimOBrien ( 203674 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @10:14AM (#22534986) Homepage
    Dear insane military-industrial complex,

    We lost one of your ultra-secret, 1.2 billion dollar stealth planes on a routine mission in the Pacific. The nation was wondering if you would consider replacing this one for free. We've given you just about all the extra money we had saved up for years and years, and we've taken out serious loans to be able to pay for increasingly flamboyant and unnecessary toys. I'm only asking for this freebie because it is getting more and more difficult to convince people that we really need to be spending money on weapons like this when an insurgent army can bring us to our knees in the middle of Iraq. Plus, people are starting to wonder if 1.2 billion dollars would be better spent teaching more intelligence analysts how to speak Arabic, Urdu, and Pashto, and I really think that 1.2 billion would go a long way toward helping us really fight terrorism.
  • by pongo000 ( 97357 ) on Sunday February 24, 2008 @10:36AM (#22535170)
    ...does the government dock your paycheck?

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