The beautiful Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit flying wing bomber captures the spirit of John Northrop, who pioneered the concept in the United States. Its unusual shape represents the fourth generation of stealth aircraft, and incorporates an entirely different approach to stealth than did the Lockheed-Martin F-117 attack aircraft.
Instead of facets, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit's radar-absorbent structural material is blended into smooth contours that minimize its return on radar. Its four General Electric engines are concealed within the body and have specially designed exhaust systems to reduce their infrared signature. The B-2 design also reduces the craft's acoustic, electromagnetic, and visual signatures.
Originally designed as a high-level penetrator able to steal into the Soviet Union undetected and drop nuclear missiles, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit has evolved into a low-level weapon designed to destroy enemy warmaking potential by the selective use of conventional precision-guided munitions.
Northrop Grumman teamed with Boeing, General Electric, and Hughes to achieve the B-2. In doing so, it maximized the pool of talent available -- and minimized the risk inherent in so advanced a program.
Widely cited as the most expensive bomber in history, at approximately $2.2 billion per copy, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit suffered the usual Congressional rough handling. Budget cuts reduced the original procurement of 132 bombers to just 21 and thus drove up the per-unit price. The B-2 makes up for its high initial cost by being able to accomplish its mission with far fewer support aircraft than other bombers, including a minimum of tankers and electronic countermeasures (ECM) airplanes.
The Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit made its maiden flight on July 17, 1989. Ten years later, on March 25, 1999, it entered combat during the war in Bosnia, dropping its munitions with remarkable effect. One can only hope that the total of 21 B-2s that will be procured will be adequate to fill all of its future missions.