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B-2 stealth bombers make combat debut

B-2 stealth bombers make combat debut

March 24, 1999 - The Pentagon confirmed Wednesday that two B-2 bombers made their combat debut Wednesday, dropping satellite-guided, 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) bombs on Yugoslav targets in the NATO attack code-named Operation Allied Force.

The U.S. part of the mission has been dubbed Operation Noble Anvil by the Pentagon.

The two B-2s took off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri for a 15-hour flight to Yugoslavia, refueling in midair over the Atlantic.

The Air Force says the $2.2 billion batwing bombers are nearly invisible to radar and are capable of dropping 16 bombs on as many as 16 different targets.

Use of the B-2 marked a culmination of sorts for a weapon system that became a lightning rod for debate over defense spending since the Reagan presidency.

Total cost for a fleet of 21 B-2s is expected to be $44 billion. The plane is built by Northrop Grumman Corp. near Los Angeles.

The plane first was seen by the public in November 1988 in a much-ballyhooed roll-out ceremony. Since then, technical problems have plagued the bomber: a radar system had difficulty distinguishing mountain ranges from clouds; radar-absorbent paint wore off too quickly; wing skins developed holes; and ejection seats failed to work properly.

Congressional boosters of the B-2 failed repeatedly to expand the program beyond the planned 21 aircraft.

Heavy payload a benefit

A senior defense official said the B-2 was selected because of its heavy payload -- by comparison, the F-117 Stealth bomber, also used Wednesday, can carry only two bombs -- its ability to attack multiple targets, and its ability to drop weapons precisely at night and in all weather conditions.

The satellite-guidance system on the B-2's conventional bombs can direct the explosive to a target without any visible contact or laser-designator.

With only a pilot and co-pilot aboard, the B-2 also puts fewer crewmen at risk than the B-52, which unleashed cruise missiles from launch points outside Yugoslavia.

B-2s can be shot down -- if they are seen by enemy ground crews or fighter aircraft. Such a development would be seen as a full-blown calamity for the military: the pair of B-2 bombers used Wednesday cost almost as much as a Navy aircraft carrier.

The Air Force has been anxious to prove the weapon's worth but leery of the consequences of a loss.

In 1996, explaining how the B-2 would be used in conventional combat, the then-Air Force chief praised the plane's ability to attack multiple targets.

"Instead of talking about how many sorties are required to bring down a given target set, we look at how many target sets can you engage with one sortie," Gen. Ronald Fogleman said.

But the use of the B-2 Wednesday as only a small part of a strike that involved scores of expensive cruise missiles undercut an argument made by B-2 proponents that its $15,000 bombs would represent a low-cost substitute for cruise missiles.

Conceived in the 1970s, the B-2 only became operational in 1997 after the Air Force and Northrop dealt with spiraling budgets and emerging technical problems. The conversion of the plane from a nuclear bomb-dropper to one with conventional capability further delayed the program.

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