Big Display Of Stealth Power – US Air Force Flies 12 B-2 Bombers; Says ‘Always Ready To Execute Global Strike Ops’

Amid rising tensions with China and Russia, the US Air Force (USAF) flew twelve B-2 Spirit stealth bombers from the Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB) in Missouri. The drill was aimed at honing the logistical and operational procedures of strategic bombing strikes during conventional wars. 

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Reports have identified it as one of the largest mass take-offs of B-2s in recent history, with the last such fleet operation during the Spirit Vigilance 2022. That drill involved eight B-2s, also taking off from Whiteman AFB.

The iteration, this time with 12 B-2s, comprises 60 percent of the stealth bomber fleet, reflecting the intensifying geopolitical and military imperative.  

This is also the second nuclear-oriented strategic strike to take place over the last two weeks. Only recently, the USAF concluded Exercise Prairie Vigilance, during which crews practiced loading the AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) on their B-52H bombers at Minot AFB in North Dakota.

The American strategic bomber fleet, also involving the B-52H Stratofortress aircraft, along with US Navy nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), comprise 70 percent of the country’s deployed nuclear arsenal.

The sea and the land component of the triad are the most survivable elements of the US nuclear arsenal. They are dispersed around the world at foreign bases, which cannot be destroyed in a single nuclear strike, unlike the ICBMs on the mainland. 

Naturally, bombers and submarines are more mobile and can also remain hidden, allowing them to be secretly mobilized for both first and retaliatory strikes. Thus, strategic nuclear exercises involving the air triad are the most frequent, given their flexibility, diversity of platforms and weapons, reliability, and greater offensive power.   

B-2 Spirits taxing on the runway at Whiteman AFB during exercise Spirit Vigilance on April 15, 2024. Source: US Air Force (USAF).

Full Fleet of Flying Wings Took Off

What makes the drills stand out this year is the availability of twelve B-2 bombers. Given their reputation as one of the most maintenance-intensive and costly combat platforms in the USAF inventory, it is no small feat.

A caption to one of the several photos released officially described a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing “taxing to the runway at Whiteman AFB.” The crew “executed (a) mass fly off of 12 B-2s to cap off the annual Spirit Vigilance exercise.” 

Logistics, ground operations, and technical services are usually major thrust areas of these drills, as reflected in the USAF, which credits “Airmen (being) always ready to execute global strike operations anytime, anywhere,” through “routine training.”   

The message of being capable of conducting ‘global strike operations’ appears to be directed towards China more than anyone else. Tensions with China are boiling in the Indo-Pacific, and the escalating pace at which Beijing is beefing its military capability is worrying the US and its regional allies. 

The current number of B-2s is believed to be 20 (out of the 21 built), and two are under repair—one was damaged upon landing in December 2022, and the second after an incident in 2021.

It is not clear, however, if this exercise involved loading nuclear ordnance, such as the B61-12 thermonuclear freefall drop bomb or an inert version replicated to its shape, size, and weight. 

However, it practiced the basic strategic nuclear strike scenario of rapidly preparing a fleet of radar-evading stealth bombers expected to reach any corner of the earth if the situation calls for it. A secondary motive was to demonstrate deterrence to rivals.

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Indeed, this being a pre-planned annual fixture, preparations from both the airmen’s and pilots’ end must have been held for weeks, if not months.

This would have afforded maintainers some prior notice, if not the ideal time frame, to wrap up repairs and replace parts. Adversaries generally time operations or actions after studying the readiness of the other actors (in this case, the US). 

A B-2 Spirit taking off from Whiteman AFB during exercise Spirit Vigilance on April 15, 2024. Source: US Air Force (USAF).

December 2022 saw the entire B-2 fleet effectively grounded following an accident involving one of the bombers that closed one runway at Whiteman AFB. Operations resumed only six months later, in May 2023.

The USAF at the time, however, maintained that the bombers could still be employed for a major contingency.