The B-2 Is Feared by America's Rivals for This 1 Reason

Sebastien Roblin

Key Point: The stealth bomber is deadly and hard to track.

Should you venture out to one of the airshows periodically held near Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, you may be so fortunate to spot one of the world’s most otherworldly aircraft, the manta-like B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

The Spirit’s swept wings measure fifty-two meters across—half the length of a football field—and its cockpit bulges organically from the surface like that of a 1950s-era sci-fi spaceship, contrasting dramatically with the jagged near forty-five-degree angles of its trailing edges.

Why does the B-2 look so weird, and how does that help evade radar?

The Spirit was designed late in the Cold War to slip through the Soviet Union’s formidable integrated air defense network combining ground-based radars, surface-to-air missiles and aerial interceptors and radar planes. These had matured to the point that U.S. efforts to develop faster or higher-flying bombers were proving fruitless.

Radars were the lynchpin of any modern air-defense system, so the Pentagon sought a stealth plane with such a minimal radar-cross section that it could only be detected at very short ranges.

The Air Force’s first stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk, was a promising start, but it could only carry two bombs over nine hundred miles unrefueled—not far enough to deliver a strategic strike deep inside enemy territory.

In the 1930s and 1940s, aviation engineers had experimented with flying wing designs like the Nazi Germany’s Horten Ho 229, and U.S.  XB-35 and YB-49. Flying wings generate additional lift--and coincidentally, are conducive to low radar cross-sections because their flat surfaces minimize opportunities for radar waves to bounce off them.  

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