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Lemon Wedges

Tags: prose

This month (April 2024) The National Interest magazine noted that the F-35 program, now estimated to cost $2 trillion through 2088, still has difficulties fielding combat-ready aircraft. For example, the F-35 only recently got cleared to fly in the vicinity of lightning storms.

The longtime issues with the F-35, and investigations into the Navy's flawed line of new ships, leads many to wonder why the US can't build cool gadgets anymore. But this is predicated on a certain belief that stealth plane programs ever were successful and effective.

Flash back to the B-1, a supersonic bomber predating modern stealth technology. A prototype flew for the first time in 1974.
After comments about the program in the 1976 campaign, President Carter moved to end the program. An excellent Time article wrote:

[...] Jimmy Carter's stunning and almost wholly unexpected decision to kill the Air Force's request for 244 swing-wing B-1 bombers
John Culver, a leading Senate opponent of the B1, elatedly called Carter's move a "victory for common sense—the most constructive and courageous decision on military spending in our time."

This was somewhat reasonable based on military strategy and understanding of Soviet defenses at the time. From the same article:

"The B-1 is a formidable weapon, but not terribly useful. For the price of one bomber, you can have 200 cruise missiles."

Sometime later in the Carter administration, he was convinced to start the B-2 stealth bomber program.
The B-1B would be revived by President Reagan in 1981.

The B-2 bomber was first revealed to the public in 1988. The initial Cold War order was for 132 B-2s, but before any were delivered, President George H. W. Bush cut back the program to 21.

In 1996, President Clinton opened up the possibility of ordering more B-2s. After a harsh GAO report, dueling editorials appeared in the Washington Post:

The B-2, like almost all airplanes, can operate in the rain. The problems mentioned in the editorial are actually old news - and they have been fixed.

Ultimately Congress left it to the White House, which declined to add B-2s, only converting a test plane to military use.

In 1998, Clinton ordered air strikes across Iraq in Operation Desert Fox. This was the first combat use of the B-1. The B-2 was still unused.

In March 1999, the B-2 began its first combat missions in Kosovo, using the first JDAM guided bombs. One of the US's stealth fighters, an F-117, was shot down in the conflict.

After the end of NATO involvement in Kosovo in June 1999, Representative Duncan L. Hunter discussed the B-2 on the Military Procurement Subcommittee:

the B–2 has been criticized from some quarters over the years and its critics have expressed many concerns about the cost, performance and maturity of this aircraft. On a light note, I understand that indeed the B–2 did fly in the rain and did perform very well in that weather.
if you put the same explosive on target with a stealth aircraft that can penetrate air defenses and drop the short-range munition that is $15,000, versus having to fire a long-range stand-off weapon from an older B–52 that doesn't have what it takes to get in close […] that costs $1,400,000 […] you are spending 100 times as much for the same amount of explosive on target with the older aircraft; are you not?


Later in the year, a magazine article put some figures on B-2 use:

The B-2s of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Mo., flew less than 1 percent of the total sorties flown by NATO aircraft in Operation Allied Force, but they accounted for 11 percent of the bomb load dropped in that conflict.

In July 2000, the 21st and final B-2 left the factory.

In 2008, a B-2 crashed during takeoff from Guam, though bad weather had cleared:

due to severe air sensor malfunction caused by heavy rain and a faulty recalibration procedure

A 2018 article in The Atlantic questioned the utility of the B-2 for 21st century counterinsurgencies and conflicts, noting that the planes had no combat missions for six years of the Obama administration.

The B-21, a replacement for the B-2, was first publicly seen in 2022. The aircraft had a test flight in 2023. It is expected to enter service in 2027 and fully replace the B-2 in 2032. The Air Force wants to build 100, which would cost $203 billion over the next 30 years.

Despite concern (going back to the 1977 article) about the age of the B-52 fleet, they continue to fly missions and are being overhauled to stay in service until 2060.

B-1Bs continue to be used in bombing missions, including an operation in early 2024.

Senator John Culver later directed an institute at Harvard's Kennedy School, and his son became Governor of Iowa.

Duncan L. Hunter served in Congress until being replaced by his son Duncan D. Hunter in 2009. The younger Congressman Hunter resigned in 2020 and received a pardon from President Trump.

The pilot of the F-117 later met and befriended the rocket unit commander who shot him down. Rumors have persisted that the Chinese sought out pieces of the crashed F-117 for reverse-engineering, possibly explaining the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The US maintained that was a mistake.