U.S. AIR FORCE
A Hawaii Air National Guard KC-135 tanker refuels a B-2 bomber over the Pacific near Hawaii in this Oct. 23 photo.
Bull’s-eye on Big Isle
It’s (practice) bombs away for B-2 stealth planes
STORY SUMMARY »
Radar-evading B-2 stealth bombers have begun using Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island as a giant bull's-eye. The Missouri-based aircraft, on duty in the Pacific, also recently practiced an air raid on Pearl Harbor, which posed as an enemy installation.
THE BOMBERS: Black boomeranglike B-2 Spirit bombers are for the first time conducting bombing practice runs over Hawaii and Alaska.
THE BOMBS: The planes, costing $1.2 billion each, use inert bombs but are capable of planting armed, smart bombs for more precise bombing runs to protect the Asia-Pacific region.
THE TARGETS: The Big Island's lava-covered Pohakuloa Training Area and the Yukon range in Alaska serve as targets for B-2 bomber training about once a month.
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More than 18,000 feet above the Big Island, two B-2 stealth bombers drop six 2,000-pound inert bombs on a training range below.
It is a scene being repeated monthly as the Air Force's sleek, boomerang-shaped planes regularly use Hawaii for target practice. The aim is to make sure pilots are trained and ready to act if needed. The Missouri-based bombers have been assigned to Guam to deter North Korea and fill gaps in the regional U.S. military presence created by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There are very few potential adversaries in the world that don't understand and respect what this bomber capability can bring," said Col. Timothy Saffold, deputy commander of the 613th Air and Space Operations Center in Hawaii.
At a cost of about $1.2 billion each, the B-2 bomber is designed so that it does not show up on radar, giving it a unique ability to penetrate an enemy's defenses and go after heavily defended targets. The plane was first shown to the public in 1988 and became available for military operations in 1997.
The planes have been flying test runs over Hawaii and Alaska since the Pentagon began rotating bombers through Guam in 2004. But they only started dropping inert bombs on the Big Island's Pohakuloa Training Area last month when the Air Force heightened the realism of the exercises.
In the past, the pilots only simulated dropping weapons over the islands. Now the pilots can see whether the bombs they release land where they are supposed to.
The planes are equipped to drop "smart" bombs, or weapons guided to their targets by global positioning system technology. But they do not use it in the Hawaii drills.
Instead, the airmen rely on gravity -- and extensive data on wind speed and elevation -- to deliver their unarmed bombs to the right spot.
Maj. Brian Bogue, deputy chief of strategy plans at the 613th Air and Space Operations Center, said such methods were extremely accurate and that there was little chance any bombs would stray off the Pohakuloa range.
Planners intentionally pick targets that are in the center of the range, Bogue said, adding two miles is the closest any of the bombs have come to the range boundary.
Further, as inert weapons, none of the bombs contain explosives, so there is no danger of one going off.
During their November training mission to Hawaii, the bombers flew some 18 hours round trip. Ohio Air National Guard tankers refueled the planes in midair twice along the way.
On the way back from Pohakuloa, the bombers launched a simulated attack on Pearl Harbor to practice targeting naval assets. Part of their mission was to use their stealth capabilities to sneak past their make-believe adversary's radar and take out its defenses.
"This particular mission covers the full spectrum of what we can do," said Maj. Tim Hale, one of the pilots in the exercise.
The B-2 bombers assigned to Guam also fly to Alaska for similar training exercises at the Yukon range. Their permanent home is Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where all 21 of the U.S. B-2s are based.
The U.S. military started rotating bombers -- including B-1 and B-52 planes as well as the stealth variety -- to Guam in March 2004.
The move compensated for U.S. forces diverted to fight in the Middle East. And it came as North Korea increasingly upped the ante in the years-long standoff over its development of nuclear weapons.