B-2 Spirit Stealth Bombers Visit Guam for the First Time in Five Years

A U.S. Air Force B-2 pilot marshals a B-2 Spirit bomber, deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam in support of Valiant Shield 24, June 13, 2024. (Image credit: Airman 1st Class Manasseh Demissie)

U.S. Air Force B-2A Spirit stealth bombers have touched down at Andersen Air Force Base on the Pacific island of Guam for the first time since 2019, as shown in a series of images released by the Department of Defense.

Taking part in Exercise Valiant Shield 2024, which we reported on previously, three B-2A Spirit stealth bombers departed Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB) in Missouri on June 12, 2024 using the callsigns REARM 71, 72 and 73.

The third aircraft, as is common in long range U.S. Air Force bomber sorties, was designated as an airborne spare in case of any malfunction with the leading two airframes. The spare aircraft returned to Whiteman AFB prior to the oceanic portion of the flight. These lead aircraft received refueling support from KC-135s based at Hickam AFB in Hawaii.

After crossing the International Date Line, REARM 71 and 72 were joined on June 13 by U.S. Air Force F-22A Raptor and U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters, which flew in formation with the bombers for a photo exercise, or ‘PHOTEX’, from a USMC KC-130.

U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps 5th generation aircraft fly over the North Pacific Ocean, June 13, 2024. (Image credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo/Jose Angeles)

Commenting on the fielding of the B-2 Spirit in the exercise, a U.S. military statement read: “The speed, flexibility, and readiness of our strategic bombers plays a critical role in our ability to deter potential adversaries and signal our unwavering support to our allies and partners.”

Two B-2 Spirit bombers, deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, are prepped for a training mission at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam in support of Valiant Shield 24, June 13, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristen Heller)

Noteworthy, the U.S. has beefed up its presence at Andersen AFB with the deployment of B-1B bombers to support a BTF (Bomber Task Force) mission in the Indo Pacific region.

B-2s Overseas

While there has not been a publicly acknowledged visit of a B-2 Spirit to Guam since 2019, Andersen AFB remains one of only three strategically positioned bases outside of the continental United States fully equipped to support the stealth bomber’s unique requirements. The others are RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom, and Diego Garcia, a United Kingdom overseas territory in the Indian Ocean.

RAF Fairford and Andersen AFB both feature hangars very similar to those used at Whiteman AFB, where each airframe is kept in its own individual climate-controlled hangar to preserve the fragile stealth coating.

A B-2A Spirit taxiing out of one of Whiteman AFB’s hangars on June 17, 2020. These hangars are of a very similar, if not identical, design to those used at RAF Fairford and Andersen AFB. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Alexander W. Riedel)

At RAF Fairford an additional hangar was constructed to a design referred to as the B-2 Shelter System or B2SS. This is a distinctive clam-shell type hangar with a PVC outer skin, designed to be more rapidly deployable than traditionally built structures. The B2SS was developed in the early 2000s and in testing was able to be shipped by air and constructed at a forward operating location in around 70 days.

Four B2SS hangars are permanently deployed to Diego Garcia, and are likely used in place of the Whiteman AFB style hangars employed elsewhere.

A B-2A Spirit pictured on Aug. 28, 2020 inside a B2SS hangar at Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Heather Salazar)

These locations have clearly been chosen with great care to provide the B-2 force with an adaptable and robust global strike capability. Andersen AFB is a perfect launching point for operations in Asia and the Pacific, NSF Diego Garcia is strategically located for access to the Middle East and Africa without being so close as to be vulnerable to attack, while RAF Fairford can support operations in the European, African and Middle Eastern theaters.

Of course, utilising the U.S. Air Force’s large aerial refueling fleet, B-2s can and do also operate long-range strike sorties directly from Whiteman AFB.

In more recent years we have also seen the B-2 fleet increase their use of other airfields for deployments and stop-overs, notably Keflavik in Iceland and Lajes Field in the Azores. The Keflavik deployment was noteworthy for being the first overseas deployment for the B-2 force following a lengthy five month pause in operations, following a December 2022 incident which saw one of the then twenty airframes suffer a fire after making an emergency landing. The U.S. Air Force later announced that a B-2 airframe would be divested from the fleet, reducing the total number in service to nineteen out of twenty-one delivered.

The previous hull-loss incident occurred in 2008 at Andersen AFB, while a B-2 landing incident in 2021 ended in the mishap aircraft being repaired by Northrop Grumman at Palmdale in California.

One motivation for taking the option to retire the airframe rather than repair it may have been the impending entry to service of the B-21 Raider, which is currently in active flight testing. The B-21’s newer generation stealth coating is said to be much more resilient than its predecessor’s, allowing a greater flexibility in terms of which forward operating locations they may be able to deploy to.

This improvement in radar-absorbing material (RAM) technology would follow what we see with smaller, tactical stealth aircraft. The F-117 Nighthawk famously used climate-controlled hangars just like the B-2 Spirit, and they continue to operate from these hangars at the Tonopah Test Range Airport to this day. The F-22 Raptor featured a more durable coating, although it still requires a lot of care to maintain. The F-35 improves on this durability again, and the coating itself is still evolving according to new developments.

Despite the improvement in durability, allowing for a greater flexibility in terms of the airfields the B-21 Raider could use for long-term deployments, we are unlikely to see Andersen AFB, NSF Diego Garcia and RAF Fairford say goodbye to stealth bombers. Their aforementioned strategic locations, as well as all of the security and munitions handling infrastructure in place, will almost guarantee their continuing use by Air Force Global Strike Command.

About Kai Greet
Kai is an aviation enthusiast and freelance photographer and writer based in Cornwall, UK. They are a graduate of BA (Hons) Press & Editorial Photography at Falmouth University. Their photographic work has been featured by a number of nationally and internationally recognised organisations and news publications, and in 2022 they self-published a book focused on the history of Cornwall. They are passionate about all aspects of aviation, alongside military operations/history, international relations, politics, intelligence and space.