by Alan McNarie
That rumbling that many of us have been hearing over the past couple of days hasn’t all been thunder. Apparently our Air Force has been using using the Army’s controversial bombing range at Pohakuloa to practice with one of its most expensive toys: the B-2 long-range stealth bomber, which has been flying here all the way from Whiteman Air force Base in my home state of Missouri to drop high explosives in the lava fields. The B-2 is a strategic bomber, designed originally to replace the aged B-52s in carrying nuclear bombs to countries such as Russia–a job that, quite arguably, could be done far more efficiently with nuclear missiles. But the U.S. has been finding other uses for it ever since, as a tactical bomber in conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, for which it’s been waaaaay overqualified. It’s quite arguably a weapons system that should never have been built, but now that it’s there and we’re trying not to have a war in Iraq and Afghanistan any longer, we apparently have to keep its pilots in practice by bombing Hawaii.
This brings back memories of a journey I took back in 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was going to Missouri to visit my son, who was then still living with his mother. But given what had just happened, I decided to take Amtrak from L.A. to Jefferson City, Missouri to see if trains, at least on the mainland, were still a viable alternative to airliners that, as 9/11 had made abundantly clear, were potential flying bombs themselves. One result of that trip was an essay called “The Amtrak Diaries,” which I still think may be one of the finest things I’ve ever written.
Only an hour or so from the end of my journey back then, I watched two giant B2s from Whiteman fly over the train on their way to bomb Afghanistan. The passage describing that encounter is given below. You can read the entire essay here.
Near Knob Noster, Missouri, passengers stare in awe at a different sight: two B-2 stealth bombers, taking off from Whiteman Air Force Base on their way to Afghanistan. One flies almost directly over us. It casts a shadow like an enormous black bat.
“Boy, that’s a big plane,” remarks the middle-aged farmer behind me. “I hear they fly about 900 miles per hour.”
He’s wrong. The B-2 is supposed to be sub-sonic. But these planes are enormous, with wingspans larger than those of most commercial airliners and a payload capacity of 20 tons of explosives. Each plane costs approximately 1.3 billion dollars. Those two planes up there represent more money than the entire estimated annual gross national product of Afghanistan.
Those planes are flying literally halfway around the world to bomb one of the world’s poorest countries. Figure in the cost of fuel–even cheap fuel–pilot and crew training, depreciation, maintenance, and $20,000 smart bombs, and each mission probably costs tens or hundreds of times more than anything it destroys on the ground. And the other side has learned how to kill thousands of Americans with only a few hate-filled lives and some box openers….