In June of last year, I went to Andersen Air Force Base, in
Guam, to be embedded with the squadron flying the Air Force's top-of-the-line
strategic weapon: the B-2 Spirit, a massive, nuclear-capable stealth bomber
that looks like a jagged boomerang and, with a price tag of nearly $1.2
billion, makes other planes seem cheap. It was my third visit in two years to
Guam, an island of growing significance in America's military-deployment
The occasion for my visit was Valiant Shield, a military
exercise--and the largest display of U.S. military power in the Pacific since
the Vietnam War--in which several B-2s would be participating. Valiant Shield
2006 featured three aircraft-carrier strike groups, with all of their attendant
destroyers, cruisers, frigates, submarines, and aircraft--290 aircraft in all,
including B-2s, Marine F-18Cs, Navy F/A-18Es, and Air Force F-15Es. Never mind
the official rhetoric--the point of this show of force was to impress
adversaries like North Korea and competitors like China. (China had been
invited to send a military delegation; the day before I arrived, Chinese
officials were inspecting the bombers from the outside.)
Andersen Air Force Base has long had a squadron of heavy
bombers, deployed there to be close to Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. On one
of my previous visits to the base, in the autumn of 2004, I'd spent time with
B-52 pilots from Barksdale Air Force Base, near Shreveport, Louisiana. They
were young, happy-go-lucky, uncomplicated. I was profoundly curious about the
B-2 pilots. For a host of reasons, they had to be different.
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
So who are these guys?
The pilots I was embedded with were from the 393rd Bomb
Squadron, out of Whiteman Air Force Base, near Kansas City, and they were in
Guam on a four-month rotation. The 393rd is the squadron whose planes dropped
the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, the current commander is
the grandson of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr., the pilot who flew the Hiroshima
mission in 1945. Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. "Nuke" Tibbets IV grew up
in Montgomery, Alabama, and graduated from the Air Force Academy. He was one of
several B-2 pilots whose quarters I shared.
Another of the B-2 pilots I roomed with, also an academy
graduate, was Captain Jim "Genghis" Price, from Mesquite, Nevada.
Tibbets had gotten his call sign because of his grandfather; Price earned his
by destroying a line of suspect buildings in Afghanistan with a
"stick" of 28 500-pound bombs, and then dropping cluster bombs on
nearby cave entrances. This was in early 2002, during Operation Anaconda, and
he was flying a B-52 Stratofortress--or BUFF ("Big Ugly Fat Fucker"),
as pilots call that hall-of-fame bomber, which made its debut in Vietnam.
Nuke Tibbets and Genghis Price were both inspired to join
the Air Force by their Army dads. That's right: Tibbets's unfamous father, not
his famous grandfather, had the most influence on his career.
"My grandfather was the ultimate warrior," Tibbets
told me in a mild southern accent that's been fading during his years away from
Alabama. "He was a gruff man of few words, whose real historic
accomplishment was the B-29 unit he had organized and trained, which ended
World War II. The fact that he personally flew the plane that dropped the first
atomic bomb reflected his belief that the ultimate warrior is always in the
front line. But it was a detail compared to his organizational accomplishment.
"For my grandfather, the mission was everything, which
meant his family suffered. He divorced my grandmother and so wasn't around a
lot when my dad was growing up. My dad had terrible eyesight and so couldn't be
a pilot. He became a pharmacist in civilian life and rose to become a colonel
in the Army Reserve, commanding a deployable MASH-like hospital unit. But my
father gently encouraged me toward the Air Force. Good on him that he never forced
it on me.
"Once I was in the Air Force, my grandfather rolled
into my life and influenced me to be a bomber pilot. In his day, my grandfather
wanted to fly bombers, as they were taking the fight to the enemy, while
pursuit aircraft were supporting that effort."
For Price, the path was simpler. His father was an Army
sergeant at Fort Carson, Colorado--close to the Air Force Academy--and all
Genghis ever wanted to do was fly jets in combat. "It's a sappy story, but
it's true," he told me in a permanently eager, cheerful voice. "In
high school, I played sports, joined all the clubs, ticked off all the
activities that would just help me get into the academy."
Genghis is a practicing Mormon who has served on religious missions
to Latin America. Macho isn't a word one would associate with him, or with
Nuke. Instead, they exude a humble, introspective star quality. When I asked
Nuke what attributes he and others look for when selecting members of the
squadron, he said, "People who are team players to such an extent that
they are self-starters, and who never want to be noticed or recognized."
Nuke and Genghis are both of average height, with taut
bodies--Price weighs only 126 pounds--and tense expressions. Their physiques
match their quiet, precise personalities. The BUFF pilots I'd met were
boisterous, hard-charging types; the B-2 pilots were older and calmer, with
patience forged by-to use one example--29-hour hauls from Whiteman to Kosovo.
These were continuous flights, with two aerial refuelings before the planes
even entered the war zone. Nuke and Genghis didn't have nine Gs available to
them to avoid enemy fire. They depended on getting into and out of a battle
No plane is invisible to radar. The trick is to reduce an
aircraft's "signature" so that you can "get iron past" a
screen of overlapping surface-to-air missile sites. A B-2 is able to penetrate
such screens because its boomerang shape gives it a severely reduced signature.
It can drop as much ordnance as an entire squadron of fighter jets, directing
bombs to their targets with GPS tail kits. All of this requires meticulous
planning--the crux of a B-2's mission.
I saw no nude pinups on the B-2 pilots' walls or computer
screens; rather, I saw photos of wives and kids, and I heard many references to
community service and church. The pilots rarely cussed, unlike almost everyone
else I've met in front-line military units. And they were less transient: A B-2
pilot can spend five years stationed at Whiteman, whereas other combat Air
Force pilots bounce around the country and the world; until recently, regular
Air Force pilots changed locations every two years. The B-2 pilots' lifestyle
helps keep families together.
Although the Air Force is run by aggressive fighter jocks,
the B-2 men are, in a deeper sense, the ultimate Air Force pilots. A comparison
with naval aviators helps illuminate their mind-set. Navy pilots have a
reputation for being screaming-off-the-carrier-deck daredevils; alone in the
ocean, without issues like noise restrictions to worry about, they have fewer
rules. Naval aviation is about what you can do with an aircraft; Air Force
aviation is about what you can't do. Begotten by the U.S. military in 1947, the
Air Force had its character molded by the Cold War's Strategic Air Command, the
core of our nuclear-delivery system. Because of their awesome strategic
responsibilities, Air Force pilots are more by-the-book, more operationally
conservative, than their Navy counterparts.
And B-2 pilots, in particular, have deeply internalized
remnants of the Cold War sensibility. Being with them gave me a palpable sense
of the terrifyingly complex struggles that may lie ahead. The squadron's group
commander of operations, Colonel Robert "Wheels" Wheeler, summed it
up this way: "How do you take out a chemical-biological site of a rogue
nation with surety, without inadvertently killing thousands of innocent
civilians downwind? Well, the best way to avoid collateral damage would be to
obliterate the site in place, with a weapon that either buries the site or
burns it completely."
If we have learned anything since the Berlin Wall fell, it
is that nothing can be ruled out. When the B-2 was developed, in the 1980s,
part of the thinking was that the pressure to counteract such a stealthy and
powerful nuclear bomber would lure the Soviets into further wrecking their
economy. Few expected that the plane would be anything more than a theoretical
asset, especially after the Cold War ended. Then came the war in Kosovo.
The 1999 conflict represented a breakthrough for the Air
Force: Rather than a multiplane carpet-bombing strategy, we deployed just a few
B-2s, each one hitting multiple targets with the superaccuracy of a fighter
jet. Suddenly, aerial warfare was no longer about how many planes were needed
to take out a big target, but about how many targets could be taken out with a
single plane. The conflict in Kosovo also demonstrated that technology could
permit the waging of limited wars. The B-2 allowed President Bill Clinton, who
had little appetite for incurring casualties in a humanitarian intervention, to
launch strikes with minimal risk to the pilots.
The B-2 has subsequently been used in Afghanistan and Iraq,
where, as Colonel Wheeler noted, "The B-2 makes a statement. And that
statement is, 'We mean business!'" He banged his fist on the table.
Wheeler is the classic intense Air Force intellectual. He has degrees in both
engineering and strategic studies and is a veteran of three wars and a diplomatic
posting in Europe. His insights came in hyperactive bursts between sips from a
quart-sized plastic coffee mug.
"The deterrence effect of this airplane may be as
important as its destructive capability," he went on. "Any adversary
knows that the B-2 can enter relatively unseen with the power and accuracy to
destroy. Merely by having the B-2, we can better influence the decision-making
process in rogue nations and encourage any other countries to perhaps go
another route in their national defense. The stealth bomber is a diplomatic
instrument as much as it is a military instrument." Wheeler didn't say
this explicitly, but for rogue nations, you should read "Iran and North
Korea"; for other countries read "China and a resurgent, nationalistic
As countries like Iran and North Korea put more and more of
their critical facilities deep underground, in places that cruise missiles
launched from such offshore platforms as submarines lack the kinetic energy to
penetrate, the B-2's ability to drop heavier bombs becomes ever more important.
If the United States ever attacks Iran, expect to be reading a lot about the
B-2. And if we never do, the B-2 will have been a hidden hand behind the
muscular diplomacy that made an attack unnecessary.
Among soldiers and marines, there exists a brotherhood of
warriors. But with sailors and airmen, the relationship is triangulated by
technology--by an emotional bond to this class of ship or to that type of
aircraft. The phenomenon is especially pronounced with the B-2.
Take Michael "Bo" Baumeister, of Thousand Oaks,
California, who retired as a chief master sergeant after 26 years in the Air
Force and now works at Whiteman as a civilian for the Department of Defense, or
"DOD," as he habitually calls it. Bo, a maintenance specialist for
the B-2, is your typical good old boy, with a ball cap and country accent; he
chews Skoal and hunts deer and pigs. "Why did you go to work for the
government, rather than for a private contractor, where you could make real
money?" I asked him. "I couldn't see leaving her," Bo replied,
referring to the B-2. "And DOD offered me the chance to stay with the
He explained further: "It's a pride thing. We're the
B-2. We not only kick down your door, we go in and out of your country without you
even knowing it. We take out your head of state, your nuke and chem-bio plants,
your SAM [surface-to-air missile] sites. 'Follow us. We clear the path,' we say
to the other aerial platforms."
I understood Bo's poignant, if over-the-top, infatuation with
the plane. Indeed, a B-2 is endlessly fascinating merely to look at. The
official Air Force description has it right: The B-2 is not so much a plane as
a "flying wing," ajagged gray-black wedge with a small bubble rising
out of its center, which is where the pilot and mission commander sit. Seen
head-on, the bubble, with its dark windshield, looks like nothing so much as
Darth Vader's mask. The ever-so-slightly-turned-down-beak design of the plane's
front tip heightens the sinister effect. As you walk around the nose, the
swept-back angle of the wings makes them disappear, and the plane seems to
shrink in size, bringing to mind a small bat. But once you reach the back of
the plane, the size of the wings becomes apparent, and you realize just how big
the plane is. Its wingspan is 172 feet--greater than the distance covered by
Orville Wright during his first flight at Kitty Hawk.
Look for another moment, and something else becomes obvious:
All the things that normally protrude vertically from an airplane's wings--the
fuselage, the engines, the tail, all the screws, rivets, tubes, and
antennae--are part of the wings themselves. The four engines are snugly
implanted on top of the wings, so that the plane becomes loud only when it's
past you; it is quiet when it's approaching. The doors for the undercarriage
and the bomb bays have razor-sharp edges that are sucked shut by hydraulic
pressure, rendering the plane's exterior seamlessly smooth--no bends or ridges,
however tiny; no angles that radar can bounce off. An electric current runs
from one end of the plane to the other. This forces radar that hits the plane
to skim across the wings rather than bounce off and send a signal. A whole
section of the plane's maintenance crew is dedicated to the plane's "skin
One clear, sunny day in Guam, I became Spirit No. 374--the
374th person to fly in a B-2 Spirit since Northrop Grumman rolled it out of the
hangar, in 1989. More people have been in space. Most of the B-2s are named
after states. The plane I flew in was the Spirit of Georgia. The pilot was
Major Justin "Mulligan" Amann, a graduate of Purdue University's Air
Force ROTC program. The mission commander stayed on the ground to make room for
me. Inside the cockpit was the mean smell of metal. With the door closed, there
was just enough room for a fold-out cot, on which the crew could take turns
resting during long flights.
I attached the buckles of my life-support harness to the
ejection seat and connected the oxygen and communications gear to my helmet and
face mask. Amann was already busy with the two laptops he'd brought on board to
supplement the plane's computer system, which dates from the 1980s.
The B-2 is less about flying than about weapons programming
and coordinating with other air and sea platforms. Adjustments to the rudders,
elevons, and tail flap are made continuously by computers; the pilot doesn't
have to worry about these tasks. However, coordinating with naval platforms can
pose a challenge, because the Navy and the Air Force use different
technological systems; as one pilot told me, harmonizing them is like merging
Apple and Microsoft.
The maintenance crew had nicknamed our plane "The Dark
Angel." Our call sign was "Death 62." The B-2 that would be
flying alongside us was "Death 72." Violence is something no one in
the combat Air Force apologizes for. The elite units of the military are about
going to war, or "being able to play," as the troops put it. Senior
Master Sergeant Kelly Costa, one of the maintenance men, told me that the most
exhilarating moments of his professional life occurred when he was helping to
load bombs onto B-2s before the "heavies" left for Kosovo and later
The flight itself, as I had expected, was not a
thrill--nothing like a ride in a fighter jet. We rose and turned at degrees no
more dramatic than those of a commercial airliner. After we reached 10,000
feet, Amann put the plane on autopilot. It continued to climb. We took off our
oxygen masks, and he immediately got busy programming two missiles and 64
separate 500-pound munitions, which we dropped over Saipan--virtually, of
course. I saw exactly what I would have seen had those bombs actually been
released: hexagons, each representing an individual bomb, disappearing in twos
from the computer screen. Had any of the bombs been nuclear warheads, the
screen display wollld have been the same, but the weapons would have been a
The sky was near perfect. From 32,000 feet, the bands of
cumulus clouds below us looked like occasional imperfections in the glazed
surface of the Philippine Sea. Sunlight penetrated the water such that Saipan
and Tinian appeared to be back-lit. Several times we flew over the old B-29
runways on Tinian, from which Colonel Paul Tibbets Jr. had flown the Enola Gay
to bomb Hiroshima. At one point we unlocked the autopilot, and I flew the plane
for 10 minutes. It was similar to sailing on instruments--a matter of making
adjustments so that a vertical line stayed on, or close to, a dot on the
screen. It struck me that the art of flying was being lost.
Behind this ease of flight lay an entire world: the
maintainers'. Deploying the four B-2s from Whiteman to Andersen had taken a
maintenance crew of 155, as well as 130 pieces of rolling stockjammers, light
carts, generators. Then there were the huge pallets of equipment, including the
containers holding the 170 different chemicals used by the B-2, each of which
requires customized climate-controlled conditions and must be disposed of
according to strict regulations. The maintainers worked 12-hour shifts, in
several buildings and hangars. To get the maintenance crew and equipment to
Guam had taken one C-17 Globemaster and four C-5 Galaxies, transport planes so monstrous
they dwarf the old standby C-130 Hercules.
Contemplating all of this led me to an unsettling
realization: In most cases, it makes little sense to put assets that require so
much ground support on forward bases. Because Guam is a U.S. territory, we can
make a huge investment there without having to worry that we'll be thrown out.
But there's no point in basing B-2s at sites controlled by other countries if
in the midst of a crisis they might deny us permission to use them. Along with
our other top-of-the-line aircraft, the B-2s should remain based primarily in
the continental United States--which makes increasing the capacity for
worldwide air-to-air refueling a key task for the Air Force.
Colonel Wheeler made the point that in future conflicts conventional
assets like the B-2 and fast-attack submarines would be used in tandem with
Predator drones, Special Forces A-teams, and Marine Corps platoons. Forget the
debate about having needed more troops in Iraq after the initial invasion. As
true as that might be, our military's primary focus in the next few decades
will not be on massive troop levels; it will be on hitting specific targets
with commando-style ground units that could call in air and sea strikes from
platforms that are either untouchable or unseen. For example, during a war with
a regional power like Iran, down-and-dirty planes like the A-10 and the AC-130,
which typically provide close air support, would be less likely to be used than
a high-altitude heavy like the B-2, after Special Operations teams have gone in
on the ground for limited periods to identify targets for the planes'
bunker-buster and other high-impact bombs.
Such operations would require an exponential increase in
complexity--a greater variety of assets used in quick, symphonic offensives.
"We may not be able to mass troops like we used to," Wheeler
observed. "It's not just a matter of negative publicity from a global
media, but of a profusion of competitors that will increasingly have the
ability to hit such large formations with weapons of mass destruction. And that
will be a chance we won't want to take.
"Think of bees swarming together in a hive, and then
flying off again," he continued. "That's the military formation of
the 21st century--lots of small joint air-land-sea configurations that combine
instantaneously for a big attack and then separate out just as fast."
That's why many of the debates taking place today--about
conventional versus nuclear weapons, about spending money on this aircraft
versus that one--are simply beside the point. The issue is no longer what an
A-team, or a submarine, or a Predator, or a B-2 bomber can do on its own; it's
how these assets can be used in combination to leverage one another.
But that raises a larger issue: If the B-2 is necessary, for
both our force structure and our negotiating credibility, as Colonel Wheeler
believes it is, then its cost of more than $1 billion per plane is a truly
depressing indicator of the price of empire. "Look at the rate of return
al-Qaeda got on 9/11," one former civilian defense official told me.
"For an investment of just a few hundred thousand dollars, they forced us
to spend billions." In other words, as necessary as the B-2 might be,
what's its rate of return--20 percent, perhaps? "I'm not saying that we
require a rate of return like al-Qaeda gets," this former official went
on, "but we'll need to narrow the difference if we're going to remain a