The US Air Force is for the first time planning to operationally deploy the Northrop Grumman B-2 bomber overseas. The aircraft will operate from bases in the Indian Ocean and the UK to spearhead US airstrikes against Iraq, if necessary.

The move follows the delivery of specially designed climactically controlled transportable shelters that are necessary to support the low observable (LO) aircraft at forward operating locations.

"We're going to forward deploy this aircraft; that is our charter," says Col Doug Raaberg, commander of the USAF509th Bomb Wing. The move will enable the air force "to cycle the aircraft as rapidly as necessary, with faster turnaround, and put more bombs on target", he says. Two principal locations are being eyed to position the B-2 closer to Iraq - RAF Fairford and the UK-administered island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

To support the deployment, the USAF has ordered five aluminium-truss transportable hangars at a cost of $2.5 million each. The last is in the final stage of delivery, says manufacturer American Spaceframes Fabricators. The 76m (250ft)-wide, 38m-long shelters are covered by two polyester vinyl layers and are climactically controlled using three 65,000kg (143,000lb) air conditioners, strip heating and a 190litre/h (50USgal/h) capacity humidifier.

"This is not a shelter for bad weather; they are environmentally controlled conditions for aircraft skin treatment," says Raaberg. The B-2 uses a substantial amount of filler and masking to seal access panels and hatches to reduce the aircraft's radar signature, which must be inspected for defects after each mission. While new LO technology such as the spray-on advanced high-frequency material promises to reduce maintenance time substantially, like paint it still requires around a 20°C (69°F) temperature and 30-60% humidity to cure.

As a result the B-2s used during the Afghanistan and Kosovo conflicts were operated from their home base at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, which features 14 purpose-built bays and two dedicated LO docks. Whereas the USAF's Boeing B-52s and Rockwell B-1Bs flew from Diego Garcia, the B-2 always returned to the USA after a crew change on the island - a round trip of 70h. Of around 7,000 USAF combat missions flown in the first 120 days of the Afghan war, the B-2 accounted for just 12, whereas the 40-year-old B-52 flew 584 sorties.

The majority of the shelters are earmarked for Diego Garcia, which, unlike Anderson AFB on Guam, has no modified facilities to support the B-2. At least one shelter will be erected at RAF Fairford to supplement existing facilities now being improved. The USAF is planning a simulated overseas basing exercise, which it estimates would generate 50 sorties for every four home-based missions.


Source: Flight International