KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Uncle Sam's arsenal is suddenly 80 tons lighter and absent $2.2 billion-plus of irreplaceable, high-tech bomber firepower.
Still, the crash of the Spirit of Kansas stealth bomber on takeoff from Guam this weekend marks just the first time in almost two decades of flying that a B-2 has fallen from the sky.
Analysts said the remaining 20 stealth bombers - even with half a dozen typically out of commission for maintenance or upgrades - give the Pentagon more than enough jet-powered muscle for virtually any air attack.
They said the crash, which left one of the plane's pilots hospitalized in Guam, wouldn't seem to raise serious alarms about the bomber's safety.
"I guess you could say the B-2 was due," said Owen Cote, a military specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There's not a plane in our inventory that hasn't crashed. The odds were bound to catch up even with a small force like the B-2."
Air Force spokesmen released only sketchy details Saturday about the crash. It did confirm that the plane crashed shortly after becoming airborne while taking off from Andersen Air Force Base about 10:30 a.m. Guam time. The cause was under investigation.
The pilots were able to eject from the jet before it plunged to the tarmac. One pilot received apparently minor injuries and the other was in stable condition at Guam Naval Hospital. The pilots' names were not released Saturday. No one on the ground was injured and no buildings were damaged.
Built in 1989, the Spirit of Kansas was among four stealth bombers that had been flying training missions from Guam since October. It had no munitions on board and was, in fact, bound to Whiteman Air Force Base with the other three jets.
Whiteman is about 60 miles east of Kansas City and home to the stealth bomber, although the jets have increasingly been deployed to Guam. Typhoon-proof hangars built especially for the planes - and the sophisticated repairs needed to keep their radar-resistant skins smooth - were completed on the Pacific outpost about two years ago.
The bomber was the second of the aircraft to take off for Whiteman from Guam on Saturday. The first quickly returned to another runway on the island and the other two jets remained on the base. An Air Force spokesman said it was unclear when the three remaining stealth bombers would leave for Whiteman. Officials at Whiteman said the crash would not prevent the flights of the bombers in Missouri.
The Guam crash comes after years of B-2 flights without catastrophic mishaps. The public first saw a B-2 when it was rolled out of a hangar in Palmdale, Calif., on Nov. 22, 1988.
Once projected for a much larger fleet, only 21 were ever made, at a cost of $2.2 billion a copy, with hundreds of millions more spent on subsequent repairs and upgrades.
It was originally designed in an arms race with the Soviets for the sole purpose of delivering nuclear bombs. Strategists once spoke of it as a plane that would have nowhere to land on its first combat sortie because it would be delivering a payload unleashed only in all-out nuclear war.
But by the time it was built, the Cold War was over. The Air Force quickly reconfigured the jet's belly-flush bomb bay to carry conventional weapons, although the B-2 remains part of the country's nuclear arsenal.
The fleet has a combined 75,000 flight hours. That includes nearly 100 combat missions. It first struck in non-stop flights from Missouri to the former Yugoslavia in 1999 in the NATO effort to protect Kosovo against Serbian oppression. It dropped a bomb on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, a hit blamed on outdated maps.
B-2s were airborne for more than a day in non-stop missions from Whiteman to Afghanistan in 2001. And at the start of the Iraq war it flew 22 sorties from the British controlled Diego Garcia in the India Ocean and 27 more from Whiteman.
It has no tail and was shaped to avoid all manner of air defenses. By military standards, its subsonic speeds are turtle-like. And the bomber's flight plans are elaborate efforts to sail above and around enemy radar.
That means its pilots don't yank and bank their aircraft like fighter jets. Rather, they manage an array of computer controls designed to keep the plane out of view and to unleash sometimes dozens of satellite-guided bombs on an array of targets.
Experts said that may be one factor why the planes had flown so safely over the years.
"It's not a lot of close-formation flying. Not a lot of barrel rolls," said John Pike, the security analyst who runs GlobalSecurity.org. "Some of the types of things that would get an airplane in trouble, they're just not going to go there."
No plane will be built to replace the Spirit of Kansas, only partly because the assembly lines that piece the B-2 together were shut down years ago. Although bomber-maker Northrop Grumman Corp. tried in recent years to sell the Pentagon more B-2s, the Air Force chose to pass.
"Losing one aircraft is not going to hurt their ability to do what they think they need to do," said William Hartung, a military analyst at the New American Foundation.
Military planners find the B-2 most valuable in the first nights of an air barrage, before the battering of air defenses. More recently, it's been identified as the plane most likely to blast Iran's nuclear program. Last fall the Bush administration asked Congress for millions to pair the bomber with the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator - a bunker-busting bomb designed for underground targets - in what was interpreted widely as a warning to Tehran.
"Iran would be its next big mission," MIT's Cote said of the B-2. "Realistically speaking, they wouldn't need very many B-2s for that."