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Project on Government Oversight




Fighting with Failures Series: Case Studies of How the Pentagon Buys Weapons: B-2 Bomber

April 20, 2001 


The B-2 bomber is a stealthy all-wing jet aircraft designed for worldwide conventional and nuclear weapon delivery missions.


Short Cuts on the Way to Acquisition:


  • Production of the B-2 was approved in 1987, but the first round of operational testing of the aircraft was not completed until 1997. This long-term period of concurrent production and testing of the aircraft resulted in an array of technical problems and huge program cost overruns. Originally, the Air Force planned to procure 133 of the aircraft for $58.2 billion, but ended up with only 21 B-2s at a total program cost of more than $44 billion. The price tag per aircraft: $2.2 billion, four times more than original estimates, according to the General Accounting Office.

  • Because development, testing and production were occurring simultaneously, the Air Force agreed to accept aircraft from contractor Northrop Grumman Corporation that did not meet its operational requirements. In fact, most of the aircraft were delivered late and with "significant deviations and waivers," according to the GAO.

    • The first lot of B-2s, delivered in 1989, were equipped with limited combat capability and lacked the ability to launch guided conventional weapons.

    • The second lot, delivered in 1996, were configured to have an interim capacity to launch nuclear and conventional missions.

    • The final lot, delivered in 1997, were models with systems supposedly capable of performing all of the bomber's stated mission nuclear and conventional goals. The new systems have yet to be fully tested.

  • The contractor's inability to deliver the most sophisticated test and production aircraft on time, meant that the B-2 program has essentially been in a continuous state of munitions and avionics upgrade - or rehabilitation. Since most of the aircraft delivered early in the program had less sophisticated munitions and avionics systems, the B-2 program has yet to meet its mission requirements and is still undergoing extensive testing and upgrading.

  • The technical problems, changes and upgrades to the Air Force's B-2 requirements resulted in an extension of B-2 testing from a planned four-year, 3,600-hour flight test program to an eight-year, 5,000-hour test program. Ironically, even the extra testing has not seemed to resolve some of the lingering technical problems resulting from the Air Force's catch-as-catch-can acquisition strategy.


  • The B-2's most distinguishing characteristic, it's stealth or ability to evade enemy radar, has been unreliable and is still concern No. 1. The low observable features and materials that give the aircraft stealth are not durable, and require costly and time-consuming maintenance. Although the B-2 was used for bombing missions in Kosovo, its stealthiness was not tested during the air campaign. Without stealth, the B-2 is just another overpriced bomber, since it is far most costly to build and maintain than the 1950s-vintage B-52 bomber, but does not carry a bigger payload or go faster than the B-52.

  • The B-2's mission capable rate, the time an aircraft is available to perform a mission, is far below the 60 percent required rate. When down time to keep the aircraft stealthy is included, the B-2 had a 33 percent mission capable rate over the past six months.

  • A critical part of the B-2's mission is to quickly destroy targets anywhere in the world from bases in the continental United States. Testing has identified problems in the ability to quickly generate and launch a mission, particularly when a mission is not pre-planned.

  • To perform a sustained bombing capability during wartime, B-2s need to be deployed overseas. So far, this has not been possible since the aircraft must be stored in costly, special climate-controlled hangers that prevent damage to its radar-absorbing skin.

  • The B-2's defensive avionics system - its ability to identify enemy threats - is still rated unsatisfactory by the Pentagon's chief tester, director, Operational Test and Evaluation. The DOT&E has criticized the system's for "inaccurate information, a cluttered display, and an excessive workload to operate the system" when unanticipated threats pop up during a mission.

  • Total Number of Aircraft: 21; Total Program Cost: $44.3 billion; Average Unit Cost: $2.1 billion.

POGO's Fighting with Failures Series documents Pentagon shortcuts in testing and operational requirements that have resulted in weapons that do not work, that waste taxpayer dollars, or that are not suitable for combat.

Sources: Fiscal Year 2000 Annual Report, Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, March 2001; Defense Acquisitions: Achieving B-2A Bomber Operational Requirements, GAO/NSIAD-99-97, June 1999; B-2 Bomber: Additional Costs to Correct Deficiencies and Make Improvements, GAO/NSIAD-98-152, June 1998; B-2 Bomber: Cost and Operational Issues, GAO/NSIAD-97-181; August 1997; B-2 Bomber: Status of Cost, Development and Production, GAO/NSIAD-95-164, July 1995; B-2 Bomber: Cost to Complete 20 Aircraft Is Uncertain, GAO/NSIAD-94-217, September 1994. 

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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