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    End of an Era: The US Air Force to Retire Damaged B-2 Spirit Amidst Shift to Next-Gen B-21 Raiders

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    In a decision echoing through the halls of military aviation history, the United States Air Force has confirmed the imminent retirement of one of its B-2 Spirit stealth bombers.

    After a calamitous incident in December 2022 at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, where the aircraft was damaged beyond economical repair, the Air Force is reducing its fleet of these iconic aircraft to just 19.

    A U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit arrives at Royal Australian Air Force Base Amberley, Australia” by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The damaged B-2, one of only 21 ever built, met its fate after an in-flight emergency forced the crew to land. The aircraft veered off the runway and caught fire, leading to a grounding of the entire fleet for a six-month “safety pause” as the Air Force analyzed the mishap.

    A U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit, deployed from Whiteman AFB, connects to a fuels truck during a hot-pit refueling at Wake Island Airfield” by #PACOM is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Though the specific cause of the accident has yet to be disclosed publicly, the ramifications are clear: the high costs and complexities involved in fixing such advanced machinery are not justified, especially with the arrival of the new B-21 Raider on the horizon.

    Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Stealth Bomber, AV-4 – 82-1069 ‘Spirit of Indiana’ at KBAD Barksdale Defenders of Liberty Airshow = HANG LOOSE!” by AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Pentagon’s annual force structure report revealed, “The B-2 is being divested in FY 2025 due to a ground accident/damage presumed to be uneconomical to repair.”

    NORTHROP B-2 SPIRIT” by Armchair Aviator is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    The B-2, notorious for its hefty $2 billion price tag per plane and its role as the most expensive aircraft ever built, has seen its numbers dwindle since one was lost in a 2008 crash at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

    Northrop B-2 Spirit” by ksr8s is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

    That incident was attributed to faulty sensor data, but the crew survived thanks to a successful ejection.

    Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Stealth Bomber, AV-17, ‘Spirit of Florida’ – 92-0700” by AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The future for the B-2 fleet, despite the setback, remains steadfast until their eventual replacement. An Air Force spokesperson confirmed that there is a commitment “to sustaining and modernizing the B-2 to maintain combat effectiveness until a sufficient number of B-21s are operational.”

    Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit AV-8 88-0330 ‘Spirit of California’ – Barksdale AFB Defenders of Liberty Airshow” by AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    But as Northrop Grumman, the manufacturer, has received a $7 billion sustainment contract running through 2029, it seems the twilight years of the B-2s are set against the sunrise of the B-21s’ deployment.

    Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Stealth Bomber, AV-4 – 82-1069 ‘Spirit of Indiana’ – AND – 61-006, Old Soldier II – AND – 60-008 Lucky Lady IV – Boeing B-52H Stratofortress BUFF at KBAD Barksdale AFB Defenders of Liberty Airshow” by AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The first B-21 flew last November, and Northrop received a low-rate initial production contract for the Raider in December.

    Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Stealth Bomber, AV-5 – 82-1070 ‘Spirit of Ohio’ at KBAD Barksdale Defenders of Liberty Airshow” by AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    As the Air Force forges ahead with this new generation of stealth bombers, expected to enter service in the late 2020s, the question of whether to invest in repairs for the remaining B-2s becomes increasingly pressing. The divestment appears to be a pragmatic choice, focusing resources on future capabilities rather than costly restorations.

    B-2 Spirit 002” by AirmanMagazine is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    The fate of the retired B-2 has not been cemented. It may serve as a maintenance trainer, undergo engineering fit checks, or find a final resting place as a display piece at the Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, or as an iconic gate guard at Whiteman.

    Northrop (later Northrop Grumman) B-2 Spirit, also known as the ‘Stealth Bomber’” by aeroman3 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

    As for the rest of the fleet, the Air Force assures that there are usually 12-14 B-2s combat-ready at any time, despite their maintenance demands.

    Red Flag, Nellis AFB, NV – Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit AV-5 82-1070 Spirit of Ohio – 393d Bomb Squadron ‘Tigers’” by TDelCoro is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

    This move underscores a broader strategy within the Air Force to pivot towards new technology. The force structure report indicates a plan to divest 932 aircraft by 2029, generating over $18 billion in savings to funnel into next-generation technologies like unmanned aircraft.

    Northrop Grumman B-2 ‘Spirit’” by aeroman3 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

    Including the one B-2, the service wants to get rid of 251 aircraft total in fiscal 2025. Then, it wants to shed 293 aircraft in 2026, 235 in 2027, 95 in 2028 and 64 in 2029.

    Relevant articles:
    Air Force Will Retire, Not Repair, Damaged B, Air & Space Forces Magazine
    B-2 that caught fire in 2022 won’t be fixed, Air Force confirms, Defense One
    Damaged B-2 Won’t Be Repaired, Fleet To Shrink To 19 Jets (Updated), The War Zone

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