Stealth bomber Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first U.S. military bomber with stealth capability.

The Need for an Invisible Plane

During the Cold War, one of the difficulties facing the U.S. military was how to penetrate the Soviet Union’s complex air defense systems in case of war. In the event of a military conflict with the Soviets, U.S. planes would have to fly extended distances, evade Soviet defenses, bomb their targets, and return to U.S. airspace. This would require fighter escort for protection and would result in losses from antiaircraft systems.

The B-2 or “stealth” bomber became the answer to this problem. Jack Northrop, founder of the aircraft company that bore his name, had developed the idea of a plane that would lack the usual wings and tail used to control and stabilize the aircraft as early as 1949. Northrop’s design became known as the flying wing. Starting in the 1960’s and continuing through the 1980’s, the plane would be the most researched and most secret weapon developed by the U.S. military.

The stealth bomber was preceded by a prototype, the SR1-7, which was known for slanted surfaces that made it less visible to radar. Continued development of the stealth bomber continued into the 1970’s outside of public view. Only President Jimmy Carter’s slip of the tongue, that the military was developing a “stealth” bomber, brought the aircraft to the attention of the public.

By the 1980’s, the U.S. military build-up included continued secret development of the stealth bomber. Its unveiling on November 22, 1988, gave the public its first view of the plane that was to change the way aircraft were built.

The “Stealthy” Plane

The B-2 bomber was different from its predecessors in its ability to evade radar and other air defenses. There are several features of the B-2 that define it as the first stealthy plane of its type.

The curved surfaces and relatively flat exterior of the stealth bomber, which stands only 17 feet high, serves to confuse radar, which tends to pass over and around it. The aircraft is coated with a special paint that scatters radar beams when they hit the plane. The graphite composition of the plane’s exterior—the exteriors of most planes are made of aluminum—also absorbs radar signals. The design and composition of the B-2 baffles the main detection devices used by air defense systems and allows the bomber to penetrate them without being detected.

Spotting the stealth bomber with the naked eye is also difficult. Its slender shape and dark color can make it hard to see in daylight or dark. Even in the unlikely event it is seen, the stealth bomber has the capability to evade attack from the ground.

One of the worst dangers to bombers is a heat-seeking missile. These missiles are programmed to locate aircraft using the plane’s heated exhaust as a guide. The B-2 is protected from such attacks. The plane’s engines are located inside the plane, and the exhaust system, located at the top of the plane, cools the air from the engines before releasing it. This confuses the detection equipment on heat-seeking missiles and complicates efforts to shoot down the bomber from below or the air.

The B-2’s design also makes the bomber fuel efficient, giving it a range of 6,000 miles. This allows it to fly a mission without being refueled, a process that makes bombers vulnerable to attack.

How the B-2 Flies

The plane’s stealth capabilities caused difficulties for its designers in creating a plane that could fly and be controlled. Because the B-2 lacks the standard wings and tail section with flaps and rudders to control direction and ascent and descent, they had to create an entirely new design.

The lack of conventional wings, which control ascent and descent, forced designers to place all control items on the rear of the plane and to turn over many pilot decisions to onboard computers. At the outside rear of the plane there are two rudders, used to keep the plane from yawing off course. Minute adjustments to the direction of the plane are made by the B-2’s computers. Also at the rear but nearer the center of the plane are three pairs of elevons, devices used to steer the plane and adjust it for descent and ascent. These act in the same way as the flaps on the wings of a standard plane. Once again, their use is controlled by onboard computers. Finally, at the center rear of the plane is the gust loud alleviation system (GLAS). The system takes the place of stabilizers, with computer adjustments to steady the plane when it hits air turbulence.

The Future of the B-2

The collapse of the Soviet Union and its elimination as a military threat to the United States called into question the need for a bomber invisible to a nonexistent radar system. The high cost of building the B-2 in times of limited defense budgets also threatened the system. The original plans for 132 planes that would carry out the bulk of U.S. air attacks during a war was reduced to 21 planes. This decision had the additional consequence of doubling the cost of each plane, to approximately $1.2 billion. This raised complaints that the B-2 was taking up funds needed for other military projects.

Although the B-2 will never see action against the type of air defenses it was built to penetrate, the development of stealth technology produced a dramatic shift in military aircraft design. Instead of the large jet designs developed after World War II, the sleek, curved design has become the model for a new generation of military aircraft.

  • Goodall, James. America’s Stealth Fighter and Bombers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. Provides in-depth technical analysis and figures describing the stealth technology of the B-2 bomber and the F-117 fighter.
  • Pace, Steve. B-2 Spirit: The Most Capable War Machine on the Planet. New York: Motorbooks, 1992. Provides photos and statistics on the range and composition of the B-2.
  • Sunston, Bill. The Encyclopedia of Modern Warplanes. London: Metro Books, 1995. Provides essential details about the B-2 and descriptions of every modern bomber and fighter in the world’s arsenal.

Aerospace industry, U.S.

Antiaircraft fire


Experimental aircraft

Flying wing

Military flight



Stealth fighter

Categories: History