Key point: The end of the Cold War meant the B-2 seemed less necessary, but fewer bombers ordered meant a higher per unit cost.
Since its inception in 1947, the U.S. Air Force has been deeply invested in operating long-range strategic bomber for nuclear deterrence. However, by the 1960s it grew clear that high-flying B-52 bombers had poor odds of surviving the Soviet Union’s growing network of high-speed interceptors and surface-to-air missiles. The Air Force instead invested in supersonic FB-111 and B-1 bombers designed to penetrate hostile airspace at low altitude, where radar detection was more difficult. But Pentagon strategists knew the Soviets were developing doppler radars and airborne radars to cover that blindspot.
By then, U.S. aviation engineers were aware that radar-absorbent materials and non-reflective surfaces could reduce a plane’s radar detection range drastically, features implemented to modest results in Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. Lockheed’s Have Blue prototypes led to the first operational stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk strike plane.
The Pentagon wanted its next stealth plane, the Advanced Technology Bomber, to address the strategic nuclear strike role. By then Northrop had tested at Area 51 in Nevada a bizarre-looking stealth demonstrator called ‘Tacit Blue’ (also known as the “Whale” or “alien school bus”). Earlier in the late 1940s, the firm had developed a gigantic 52-meter wingspan flying-wing jet bomber called the YB-49. When Lockheed and Northrop went head-to-head in the ATB competition in 1981, Northrop’s larger, tailless fly-wing concept won out.