Are America’s Stealth Bombers Ready for Action?

Brian Slattery /

MAI / Splash News/Newscom

MAI / Splash News/Newscom

The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber can avoid most modern adversaries’ defenses, but it is currently facing a different threat: defense budget cuts.

Of the 20 B-2s in existence, only 16 are operational at any given time due to maintenance schedules; a recent report claims there may only be nine available. In addition, a handful of B-2s are constantly used for training, so the availability of combat-ready Spirits actually declines further.

The B-2 Spirit is the most advanced stealth bomber on the planet. It has served the U.S. since the 1990s in both strategic and conventional bomber roles, performing strikes over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya while also contributing to America’s nuclear deterrence missions. With a combination of low-visibility, long-range, high-altitude capability, and advanced weapons systems, the B-2 is a valuable asset for fighting security threats, but it is not receiving the support it needs to continue performing its missions.

The Air Force flies two other bombers: the B-52 Stratofortress and the B-1B Lancer. Yet these two aircraft lack the stealth capabilities of the B-2. With the emergence of “anti-access/area denial” capabilities in foreign militaries, the B-2 will increasingly be the only aircraft able to perform bomber missions in contested airspace, especially in the Asia–Pacific region. The B-1B also no longer performs strategic nuclear missions, putting additional responsibility on B-2s.

Maintenance concerns permeate the whole bomber fleet. The last time the U.S. military procured a B-52 was in 1962—61 years before today but only 59 years after the Wright Brothers first flew an airplane. While the B-52s have undergone comprehensive maintenance and weapons system upgrades throughout the years, they cannot remain in the air indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the B-1B fleet is 25 years old. According to the Congressional Research Service, “many of the systems on the B-1 are original equipment and suffer from diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortfalls that impact reliability, availability and maintainability.”

The Air Force’s answer to its bomber fleet concerns is the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). Building on the stealth capabilities of the B-2, this aircraft can be launched from aircraft carriers and is capable of performing unmanned missions that extend its range far beyond that of any current bomber aircraft.

This program is in very early stages of development. The Air Force reports that it doesn’t need a LRS-B fleet until the 2020s, but current budget pressures are making it very difficult for the program to mature properly. The Air Force has already grounded a third of its total fleet due to budget cuts, and current operations’ missions are justifiably prioritized over longer term maintenance and modernization, potentially pushing the LRS-B further into the future.

Whether performing strategic missions of nuclear deterrence or performing strikes on high-value terrorist targets, American security depends on a robust bomber fleet. Yet this fleet is threatened by dramatic cuts to the defense budget that are already having an effect on overall military readiness. The President and Congress need to make a more responsible commitment to the future of this capability.