Wednesday, March 26, 2003
WHITEMAN AFB, Mo. —B-2 stealth bombers that led the coalition's "shock and awe" campaign last week continue to drop bombs over Baghdad in an effort to clear the way for coalition ground forces.
"Our job is to lead the fight, force open the defenses and make a path to allow all the rest of the forces that are going to be taking part of any kind of air campaign to exploit their capabilities. So it's a very tightly integrated ballet," said a commander calling himself "GQ."
"It's really something to see how all the weapons systems work together on a very timed, intricate plan to make it all happen at the right time, so that everybody contributes."
In a Fox News exclusive, pilots and commanders based at Whiteman Air Force Base, deep in the heart of Missouri, talked about what it was like to lead the U.S. bombing campaign.
"We could see part of the shock and awe -- we could see the flash of weapons … there was smoke over the city," said one pilot who flew a bomber in the first wave of attacks on Baghdad. "It was definitely hunker-down time."
These B-2s have been flying nonstop, 36-hour missions from Whiteman to Iraq since the bombing began. Pilots and their planes have so far come out unscathed and have hit more than 200 high-profile targets in and around Baghdad, such as airfields.
On the first night of "shock and awe" alone, six sorties leveled 92 targets.
"B-2 is shock and awe, right into Baghdad," said one airman at Whiteman.
The B-2s can travel at subsonic speed and slip into enemy airspace virtually undetected. They can deliver nuclear and conventional weapons, such as precision munitions. With a price tag of approximately $1.2 billion each, the bombers can hold up to 40,000 pounds of artillery and can strike 16 targets in a single pass using 16 different weapons.
"It's important to the war fighter that he has access to that kind of firepower," said "Tiger," a squadron commander who served in Desert Storm. "You can see that technology has finally caught up with the art of war and we're going to be much more lethal."
"I think the enemy's eyes are going to be opened wide when he sees the ferocity that we can bring to bear, and the shock and awe that he's going to have to withstand."
At one point during their bombing operations within the past week, the planes veered away from their set course at the last minute to take out Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles in order to reduce the threat to coalition forces on the ground.
What makes the B-2 great is that it combines all of the capabilities of the U.S. bomber force -- B-52s, B-1s and B-2s -- which all have the capability for providing long-range precision and non-precision weapons delivery against targets.
But the B-2 has a stealth aspect like no other aircraft and can strike targets other planes simply cannot.
"We can go in, use that stealth capability to exploit weaknesses in the air defense systems of any country that we might be forced to attack, and open the door for the rest of the forces to come in," said "GQ." "So we take the great capabilities of other bombers and add the stealth to it, and it's a fabulous weapons system."
About 60 percent of the B-2s are taking off from Whiteman; the other 40 percent from a forward location closer to Iraq.
Before the war even began, more than 200 airmen from the 40th Expeditionary Operations Group and the 393rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron took off in B-2s from Whiteman for their new home closer to Iraq. It was the first combat deployment in B-2 history.
"You're making a statement to the world that the nation means what they're saying," Tiger said after the first wave of bombers took off for their forward location.
"It's set forward for a reason because from that distance, we can be even more lethal … and strike at the heart of the enemy."
Forward deployment allows U.S. air troops to be closer to the flight, allows quicker turns on the airplanes and shorter sorties and causes less stress on the crews' endurance.
Long sorties, such as those the bombers flew in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, can go up to 44 hours in length, depleting the crew of energy and alertness.
"What it means to them is, 'Look out. Here we come,'" said Col. Doug Raaberg, cmdr. of the 509th Bomb Wing. "Because what the B-2 will do is going to be very short notice."
The positioning allows the United States to launch an attack on Baghdad from almost any direction at any time.
"Perhaps the movement of airplanes closer to his home will deter him, but if none of that happens and he is not deterred, then we are poised and ready to execute whatever options the president decides to do," said pilot "GQ."
Pilots chosen for bombing runs go through an extensive screening process.
"We typically only take the most experienced folks that we have ... and forward deploy them," said Maj. Bruce Bartholomew of the 509th Logistics Readiness Squadron.
Candidates' records are scoured and some are invited to Whiteman for interviews. Candidates also fly a B-2 simulator to make sure they can handle the weapons systems and learn lessons quickly. They also come with great recommendations
"They have come here to Whiteman and show us that they are the kind of aviator that we want to have here," "GQ" said. "They're all very Type-A, driven to succeed."
B-2 pilots have anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 hours experience in flying the aircraft and are very skilled.
"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind," Raaberg said, "that we'll do exactly what we're trained to do ... and that is kick the door down ... and then we're going to kill some targets."
Fox News' Jeff Goldblatt and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.