Air Force: B-2 Can Still Fly Missions, Despite Stand Down

Editor’s Note: This story was updated Dec. 21 to reflect a statement from the 509th Bomb Wing that the runway at Whiteman Air Force Base has reopened.

A day after publicly disclosing a safety stand-down for its entire fleet of B-2 Spirit bombers, the Air Force clarified that the nuclear-capable B-2 can still fly—if absolutely necessary.

The 509th Bomb Wing, which operates the Air Force’s fleet of 20 B-2s, said Dec. 20 the stealth bombers ”can be flown if directed by the commander in chief to fulfill mission requirements.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is investigating the Dec. 10 incident at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., involving a B-2 that temporarily closed the runway and sparked the safety stand-down in the first place.

In a press briefing Dec. 20, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder downplayed the ramifications of the stand-down. “The Department of Defense, to include the Air Force, has a variety of capabilities at its disposal, particularly when it comes to our strategic bomber fleet,” Ryder said. “We also have the B-52, which is both conventional and nuclear capable, which provides a redundant capability, broadly speaking, when it comes to our strategic forces.”

The 509th Bomb Wing provided updates on the incident Dec. 20 and 21. One statement cited “a fire associated with the aircraft.” The Air Force and Pentagon have not answered questions on the extent of the damage to the aircraft involved. The runway was initially closed, but a statement Dec. 21 said it had reopened.

“We’re exercising due diligence to ensure the continued safety of our Airmen and our aircraft,” Col. Daniel Diehl, 509th Bomb Wing commander, said in one of the statements.

A safety investigation board is still trying to determine the cause of the incident, the wing added.

“The board consists of specialists who provide technical expertise to prevent future mishaps,” the 509th Bomb Wing said. “The team is conducting an extensive inspection to determine the root cause of the mishap.”

The 509th Bomb Wing continues to describe the incident as the result of an “in-flight malfunction” that caused the aircrew to make a “successful” emergency landing. The aircraft was then “damaged on the runway” after touchdown. The nature of the in-flight issue and exactly how the aircraft was damaged on the ground is unclear.

The Dec. 10 incident is the second serious mishap involving a B-2 at Whiteman Air Force Base in 15 months. In a September 2021 incident, a B-2 had an issue with its hydraulic system before its landing gear collapsed on touchdown due to worn springs, according to an Air Force investigation.

The Air Force and Pentagon insist this current grounding of the B-2 fleet is just a precaution. If called upon, B-2s could execute a mission at the president’s direction, they said, alluding to its role as part of America’s nuclear arsenal.

However, it is unclear how the debris on the runway at Whiteman Air Force Base would affect that, and the Air Force has not said whether there are airworthy B-2s at any other bases. The safety stand-down applies to all B-2s—the B-2 damaged in 2021 was last seen flying to California for further repairs.

“I’m confident that we continue to maintain the bomber capability that we need to deter adversaries and, if necessary, in combat,” Ryder said. “We have plenty of redundancy and resiliency built into our combat capabilities across the Department of Defense. On any given day, at any given time, there is going to be aircraft, ships, forces on the ground available to confront any threat that we may have wherever it may pop up, so no vulnerabilities at this time.”

This article was updated Dec. 21 to reflect the re-opening of the Whiteman Air Force Base runway.