WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. — The B-2 bomber aircraft can carry both conventional loads, with a variety of munitions such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition, and nuclear loads, currently in the form of the B61 and B83 bombs. Overall, it can carry up to 40,000 pounds of munitions, with a mix depending on the mission set.
Modern, conventional munitions come with flexibility, something technicians take advantage of when called to load the bomber.
“I describe it as ‘Mr. Potato Bomb,’ ” said Master Sgt. Kristin Inwood of the the Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base in an interview with journalist and Defense News contributor Jeff Bolton during a visit to Whiteman in Missouri. “You have a bomb body, and then you’ve got accessories that go on — different nose cones, different tail cones, different fins — to make the different versions of bombs that we use.”
Pat Kumashiro, a retired Air Force colonel with government-service firm LMI, said bomb builders typically get 24 to 48 hours’ notice about the kinds of munitions on which they will likely work. Those notices come in the form of something known as an air tasking order fragmentary, or FRAG.
“The FRAG will determine the required fuze settings to determine whether ops needs bombs to penetrate the target before blowing up, hit the target and blow up, or blow up above the ground,” Kumashiro told Defense News. “Additionally, there are dumb fins that do not move, and there are smart fins that guide the bomb to the target.”
Components are moved from a storage facility to the munitions pad, where they are typically built on a munitions assembly conveyor, which is basically a rail system and an assembly line for the weapons. Personnel prepare the bomb’s body, fin and fuze, and then install the nose fuze, tail fuze or fin.
“During the nose or tail-fuze installation, the crew meticulously checks the mission settings to ensure the right fuze settings are installed on the bomb. Finally, the crew installs the arming wire. Once the bomb is built, the bomb is loaded on a munitions trailer for delivery to the flight line,” Kumashiro explained.
Added Tech. Sgt. Mitch Delouche of the 131st Bomb Wing: “We have anything from a 500-pound bomb to a 2,000-pound bomb, all the way up to a 30,000-pound bomb, [known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator]. So we get various components and we can configure them in different formats for the mission.”
Predictably, the nuclear portion of the B-2′s mission requires extra scrutiny and security. There’s physical security, of course, but also mental security. Whiteman maintains a robust Personal Reliability Program team, or PRP. That group of airmen have the sole focus of making sure those handling strategic systems are up to the task. That includes checking security clearances, foreign contacts, and both mental and physical health.
As the 131st Bomb Wing’s Senior Airman Katie Major put it: “We’re looking forward to see what type of medications they’re using, if their psych is good — that’s a big thing. We’re looking for any distractions to their duties that could stop them from doing their jobs.”
“As a PRP monitor, we’re kind of the first line of defense,” said 131st Bomb Wing Tech Sgt. Tim Freeman, adding that “anybody” who touches the B-2 in a potential nuclear role must go through monitoring and cross-checking.
“We make sure that our airmen that are working this platform and doing their jobs, whether they’re loaders or weapons [maintainers] or pilots or whatever they may be, we help them stay ready to do the mission and the job. If they need a break because of life issues that impact their job performance, we work them through that process and then get them back on track so they can complete that mission," Freeman explained.
That mental health check ties back into those who make and manage the conventional and nuclear weapons: Those personnel don’t always know whether the bombs they are produced will be detonated.
“We don’t always know what we are doing, we’re kept in the dark almost as much as the outside populous,” Inwood said. “We will run exercises, we’ll run bomb builds and we load things up. Sometimes the B-2 takes them places and gets rid of our enemies, and sometimes they just take the munitions on a trip and they come back down and we [off]load them. So we’re never quite sure what happens.
“That's difficult. I don't like necessarily knowing that I kill people, but I know that my actions help save a lot of people. I know the people that we're going after aren't necessarily good people, so we're taking care of the people that need to be taken care of.”
Master Sgt. Andrew Chocha, a munitions loader for the 509 Munitions Squadron, put it more bluntly: “Yes, the B-2 is a deterrence tool, but we don’t do deterrence. The politicians, the people outside the gate, they do deterrence. When they call us, it has gone past deterrence. So we do lethality.”
Defense News partnered with independent journalist and long-time radio personality Jeff Bolton for a multimedia report that takes an up-close look at the U.S. nuclear enterprise by way of Bolton’s exclusive flights on military strike platforms and interviews with the leadership and military staff that support nuclear operations and missions.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.