National Security

Published — March 29, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

The high cost of rattling North Korea’s cage

B-2 flights send expensive message


The U.S. delivered a very expensive message this week in dispatching a couple of its $3 billion, B-2 stealth bombers from Missouri to drop dummy bombs during training exercises in South Korea.

As David Axe explains in the story below, by some estimates the planes cost $135,000 per hour to fly — nearly double that of any other military aircraft. And their hefty price tag in today’s dollars makes them too expensive to put at serious risk in all but the direst circumstances.

So how much did it cost to drive home the Obama administration’s not-so-subtle point at a time when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says the Pentagon faces a $41 billion shortfall because of the sequester?

The planes, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, fly at “high-subsonic” speeds, about that of a civilian airliner. If both flew the roughly 6,500 miles from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Seoul, South Korea, the trip could have taken as little as about 10 hours. That would make the price somewhere in the neighborhood of $5.4 million.

That’s a rough guess, but the military isn’t saying. When pressed by reporters Thursday, neither Hagel nor Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey could provide a figure.

Meanwhile, $6 billion in U.S. hardware was zooming over the South Korean countryside.

The flights came after North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests led to U.N. sanctions, which provoked a barrage of threats against the United States. The increasingly bellicose pronouncements have set nerves on edge in the U.S., Japan and neighboring South Korea.

“I think their very provocative actions and belligerent tone, it has ratcheted up the danger, and we have to understand that reality,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters Thursday.

Not only are the sleek black B-2s prized by the Pentagon, they are also among the most narrowly specialized and expensive warplanes to operate in the U.S. military.

Dempsey noted that the two flights were paid for out of money set aside for yearly B-52 and B-2 “Blue Lightning” exercises in northeast Asia.

“We budget for a certain number of them annually,” he said.

“For the past eight years, Air Force B-2s and B-52s have quietly created a persistent umbrella of power projection and deterrence in the Pacific,” said an article on “Blue Lightning” in the December 2011 edition of Air Force Magazine.

“Bombers rotate to Guam and range across US Pacific Command’s area of responsibility on exercises that train crews and show the full reach of American airpower.”

Hagel said the flights and military drills were not intended to provoke North Korea, but reassure allies South Korea and Japan.

“You know, those exercises are mostly to reassure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict,” he said.

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