The Complex

The Air Force Totally Lied to You About the Fiery Fate of Its Stealth Bomber

On Feb. 26, 2010, a U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bomber forward-deployed to America's giant Pacific air base in Guam was getting ready for a training flight when one of its four jet engines burst into flames.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze and the crew escaped unharmed. A Guam newspaper phoned Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Kenneth Hoffman, who reassured the paper that the fire was "minor."

But that was a lie -- the depth of which is still becoming apparent, four years later. The cover-up is one of a long chain of obfuscations by the U.S. military in the wake of serious and even fatal accidents involving its most high-tech and expensive warplanes.

Far from being minor, the fire underneath the radar-evading B-2's skin caused serious damage that rendered it unable to fly -- a big deal, considering that the Air Force possesses only 20 of the giant bombers. The B-2s, normally based in Missouri, are the only long-range American warplanes able to slip past heavy enemy defenses.

Northrop Grumman built 21 B-2s for the Air Force between the 1980s and early 2000s at a total cost of more than $40 billion. A small number of the bat-wing bombers rotate through Guam in order to put them within quick flying time of America's Pacific rivals, including China. But the Pacific ops are risky: in 2008, a B-2 crashed in Guam, reducing the stealth bomber fleet to just 20 planes.

Losing another B-2 in Guam not two years later obviously had the potential to be hugely embarrassing for the flying branch. For more than a year after Hoffman dismissed the latest accident as "minor," no one outside of the Air Force had any idea that the B-2, named Spirit of Washington, had nearly been destroyed and was, in fact, stuck in Guam.

The Air Force did not list the fire in its official tally of B-2 mishaps, but a presentation by a pair of military researchers in October 2010 did acknowledge the incident ... and stressed the unexpected difficulties that airmen faced trying to smother a blaze underneath the bomber's special radar-absorbing skin.

The first major indication that Hoffman, and indeed the entire Air Force, had been less than truthful about the B-2's condition came in August 2011, when the flying branch released a feel-good official story describing efforts to get Spirit of Washington back into flying shape so that the bomber could return to the mainland United States for permanent repairs.

The official story ret-conned the bomber fire to "horrific" and described the "Herculean" task of shipping new parts to Guam in order to patch up the crippled airplane, get it back into the air and shepherd it across the vast Pacific to Northrop Grumman's secretive stealth warplane factory in Palmdale, California. "The task list was long and included rebuilding some structural components," the Air Force admitted.

Reporters were incensed.

Spirit of Washington spent the next two years in Palmdale being rebuilt by Northrop Grumman in the same facility that produces top-secret stealth drones. Another official story in December 2013 detailed the huge extent of the repair work. "A percentage of the parts could be re-manufactured, but other parts could only be obtained from Air Force spare parts depots."

On Dec. 16 last year, the restored Spirit of Washington took off on its first training sortie since the 2010 fire. Four days later, the Air Force deigned to announce the bomber's return to duty-and the increase in the operational B-2 fleet from 19 airframes to 20.

The cover-up is consistent with the Pentagon's handling of incidents involving its most sophisticated warplanes, which besides the B-2 also include the F-22 stealth fighter and the V-22 tiltrotor. The complex V-22 takes off and lands like a helicopter but cruises like an airplane thanks to its rotating engine nacelles.

For years, F-22 pilots complained of oxygen deprivation apparently resulting from inadequate equipment in the high- and fast-flying plane, which costs up to $300 million apiece. In 2010, Capt. Jeff Haney died after crashing his F-22 in Alaska. The evidence strongly indicated that Haney had blacked out, but that did not stop the Air Force from blaming the accident on pilot error.

Likewise, the Air Force and Marines' finicky V-22s-purchased for $100 million a pop-crash and burn at a rate much higher than the official statistics admit. When a V-22 went down in Afghanistan in 2010, killing four people, the Air Force blamed the crew despite evidence that the tiltrotor's engines had failed in mid-flight.

And when lead accident investigator Brig. Gen Donald Harvel protested, the flying branch brass mounted a coordinated campaign to discredit and silence him.

The Pentagon seems to want Americans believe that its high-tech warplanes rarely malfunction. The reality is that crashes and fires are shockingly common, expensive and deadly.

First published on Medium.com's War Is Boring collection.

Air Force photo

National Security

Top Pentagon Official: Unleash the Accountants of War in Afghanistan

As anxiety mounts over whether the Karzai government will sign a security agreement with the U.S., the Pentagon's senior policy official on Asia says any American servicemembers who stay in Afghanistan after the end of this year should be minimal, they shouldn't stay for long -- and they should include accountants and publicists, not very many infantrymen.

Peter Lavoy, the acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told Foreign Policy in an interview that he expects Kabul to sign a security agreement with the U.S. But there's been a shift in thinking within the administration over just how long American forces should stay in Afghanistan. No one should expect anything along the lines of Germany or Japan, countries in which the U.S. has had and will likely maintain a large, enduring force decades after the wars there.

"If we have a security presence post-2014 that does train, advise and assist, I don't think we should be there much beyond the immediate post-2014 period," said Lavoy, who leaves the Pentagon this week. "I think we're talking a couple of years, and no more."

Lavoy said no decisions have been made yet and that he was expressing his personal view. But Lavoy, a former intelligence analyst and expert on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region who slipped into policymaking, is generally respected for his views on the region. Lavoy, who is leaving government, was appointed by the Obama administration and spoke highly of the White House's approach on the Afghanistan war. His views very likely reflect thinking inside the administration.

The Obama administration, which first sought to own the Afghan campaign when it first came into office, has grown war-weary and has shown increasing signs of anxiety over the mercurial Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. The administration routinely floats "the zero option" -- removal of all American troops by the end of the year if Karzai doesn't negotiate honestly over a post-2014 troop presence.

The administration's sentiments on Afghanistan were essentially confirmed Tuesday with reporting in the media on a new book by Robert Gates. In it, the former defense secretary harshly criticizes Obama's approach to Afghanistan as troubled. Although he sought to get the U.S. out of Iraq and campaigned that Afghanistan was the more moral war, Obama's interest in the Afghanistan war waned even as he ordered 30,000 more troops into the country for the surge of 2009. Obama doubted his policy and distrusted the options the military put before him, Gates wrote in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War: "I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission."

Although the administration has refused to make a public commitment to how large a force it would leave in Afghanistan -- a frustrating policy decision in and of itself to some -- the notional numbers run between 3,000 to about 5,000. Add to that an international force of say another 5,000 and the post-2014 force in Afghanistan could be between 9,000 and 12,000, though it's likely to be much smaller.

But the Obama administration is eager to move past the longest U.S. war. Lavoy's comments reinforce that approach.

"Were' not looking for a big U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan in perpetuity," he said.

That doesn't square with a lot of experts who believe the U.S. needs a robust force there -- even if it is small in number -- to help Afghanistan after most international forces pull out.

"I still think we need enough capacity to mentor Afghans at training sites, at major field commands, and also in the occasionally stressed or endangered brigade or [Afghan troop battalion] ," said Mike O'Hanlon of Brookings, adding that the U.S. should maintain a Joint Special Operations Command force and drone capability.  "We should have a wide geographic presence in the country, and in the short term, we need bridging forces for a couple more years, larger than the enduring force, in areas such as airpower where Afghans are still weak."

But it appears more likely the administration will define its post 2014 mission in a very limited way. Fears among Afghans and others that the U.S. wants to maintain a large force so it can use Afghanistan as a base of operations for other missions is simply not accurate, Lavoy said.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "It just makes no sense for us to do that."

Instead, the nature of the kinds of forces he says the he envisions for Afghanistan are "the least threatening kinds of forces" one could imagine --accountants and public affairs personnel -- to assist Afghanistan as it makes political and economic transitions after this year. Afghan National Security Forces, which include both the army and the police, are reasonably competent at performing most combat operations, even if they need "enablers" like medical evacuation capabilities like helicopters, and some logistics help, he said. The U.S. should continue to provide those kinds of enablers, along with train and assist forces, for a short time after this year. But the focus of what Afghanistan really needs is assistance to aid its political and economic transitions, Lavoy said: "The green eyeshade people and the public affairs people."

Lavoy said he is confident a security agreement can be reached with the Karzai government. Karzai himself had assembled a handpicked loya jirga comprised of tribal elders to reach consensus on what Afghans wanted to see after 2014 when the U.S. is supposed to turn over all security responsibilities to the Afghans. The tribal leaders concluded that they wanted an agreement with the U.S. and wanted a limited number of forces to stay. But Karzai has not yet signed the document, infuriating the Obama White House. The Pentagon also wants an agreement because it will help clarify its own planning for a residual force after 2014. And in turn, the international coalition that remains in Afghanistan wants to know what the U.S. is planning to do so those countries can make their own plans.  Lavoy acknowledged the frustration, saying the lack of clarity about how this year's transition unfolds is at the heart of much of Karzai's current behavior. Afghans see the transition with apprehension and trepidation due to the uncertainty of what role the U.S. and international community will play after this year and are forced to engage in "hedging" activity as a result, he said.
"I think it is in our interest to create a greater sense of clarity of international support to Afghanistan, a clearer vision about the future of Afghanistan, how it will evolve post-2014," he said.  At the same time, Lavoy said President Obama is committed to not re-learning the painful lessons of the Russians when that country withdrew in the late 1980s.

"This administration is committed not to repeat 1989 and the aftermath of 1989 because we've learned the lessons in this part of the world," he said.

And to Lavoy, the road to avoid repeating those mistakes will be paved, in part at least, with American accountants and public affairs experts. But only for a short time.

John Moore/Getty Images