August 23, 1997 in Nation/World

Keeping B-2 Bomber Invisible A New Challenge To Weather

New Scientist

It happened to the Invisible Man. And now, it seems, it’s happened to the Pentagon’s Invisible Bomber. The effect just plain wears off.

Critics of the B-2 stealth bomber have grumbled for years that it was an expensive waste of money. Now they have another complaint: You can’t even leave it out in the rain.

The bomber’s special radar-absorbing coat material is a little too delicate, according to a report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The material quickly degrades and loses its “invisibility” if exposed to rain, heat and humidity. If the U.S. Air Force ever wants to take the bomber on operations away from home, it will have to send along air-conditioned hangars.

So far, the USAF has spent about $43 billion of the estimated $44.7 billion it will cost to get 21 aircraft into the sky by 1999, a price tag of about $2.1 billion a plane. But the GAO warns that the need for special hangars to keep them cool and dry will drive up the costs, although it did not estimate by how much.

The Air Force’s problem is that the special coating, a composite of plastic and metal that absorbs radar, needs to be repaired after each flight. And the material must be left to “cure” in a cool, dry environment.

To add insult to injury, simply sitting outside in the heat and rain damages the coating, a spokesperson for the GAO says. The Pentagon argues that there is no reason why the aircraft can’t be sent into action away from home, but admits that it would pose a few operational problems.

The revelation comes just as the Senate and the House of Representatives prepare to fight over whether to spend any more money on the bomber. But John Pike, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, doesn’t think the revelations will make any difference.

“At this point the B-2’s got an awful lot to do with money and politics and not much to do with defense,” he says.

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