Two Missouri-based B-2 stealth bombers have carried a clear message from the U.S. to North Korean leaders.
Following weeks of North Korean bluster, the U.S. on Thursday took the unprecedented step of announcing that the nuclear-capable bombers joined joint military drills with South Korea, dropping dummy practice bombs on an island range.
The bombers made the 13,000-mile nonstop round trip from Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster.
In a statement issued Thursday morning from Seoul, the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman and the U.S. Strategic Command said the mission demonstrates America’s ability to conduct precision strikes “quickly and at will.”
The North Koreans reacted late Thursday. The government-controlled Korean Central News Agency website said the B-2 mission “from Whiteman air force base in Missouri State ... proves the brigandish ambition of the U.S. imperialists for aggression.”
It said the B-2 flights were an ultimatum that the U.S. “will ignite a nuclear war at any cost on the Korean Peninsula.”
But a U.S. international security expert said the B-2 mission was a reminder to the North Koreans “that there are things we can do that they have no defense against.”
Owen Coté Jr., associate director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the show-of-force B-2 mission sends the message that the U.S. alliance with South Korea “remains solid in both directions.”
The $2.2 billion B-2, with its 40,000-pound capacity of nuclear or conventional bombs, is an especially effective weapon in North Korea, Coté said, because the B-2 is “absolutely immune” to North Korea’s Vietnam-era radar defense system.
“North Korean radar is ubiquitous ... but it is not mobile,” he said. “The B-2 knows where the radars are and it flies a path between them.”
Twenty of the bombers are based at Whiteman, the only operational base for them since the Air Force first based them there in 1993, partly at the request of then Missouri congressman Ike Skelton.
Many aspects of the stealth bombers, which carry a crew of two, remain classified. But the planes use composite materials, special coatings and a flying-wing design to evade radar detection.
They have been used effectively in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Based on one estimated cost of about $10,000 per flight hour, the mission to South Korea probably cost taxpayers at least $260,000.
“The B-2 is a door opener,” John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org told The Star last year. “It has the unique ability to fly unescorted into hostile airspace and blow up a lot of stuff — without us first having to take out the other guy's air defenses.”
“The North Koreans, for whatever bizarre internal reasons, are deciding they have to whip up this crisis,” Coté said.
The B-2 mission, he added, is a reminder that they have “no means of defense. This is the Americans and South Koreans saying they have a straightforward deterrent.”
Coté said the B-2s can haul plenty of heavy ordnance.
“The thing about the B-2, besides its stealth,” he said, “is that it can unleash by far the most powerful conventional weapons.”
The bombers can carry high-impact bunker buster bombs that would convince most any leader, Coté said, that he can’t “dig holes, cover them with concrete and feel as though he is protected.”
The flights are likely to further enrage Pyongyang, which has already issued a flood of ominous statements to highlight displeasure over the drills and U.N. sanctions after its nuclear test last month.
North Korea sees the military drills as part of a U.S. plot to invade and becomes particularly upset about U.S. nuclear activities in the region. Washington and Seoul say the drills are routine and defensive.
North Korea has already threatened nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul in recent weeks. It said Wednesday that there was no need for communication in a situation “where a war may break out at any moment.” Earlier this month, it announced that it considers void the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.
Analysts see a full-blown North Korean attack as extremely unlikely, though there are fears of a more localized conflict, such as a naval skirmish in disputed Yellow Sea waters. Such naval clashes have happened three times since 1999.
North Korea's latest threats are seen as efforts to provoke the new government in Seoul, led by President Park Geun-hye, to change its policies toward Pyongyang. North Korea's moves at home to order troops into “combat readiness” also are seen as ways to build domestic unity as young leader Kim Jong Un, who took power after his father's death in December 2011, strengthens his military credentials.
Although North Korea has vowed nuclear strikes on the U.S., analysts outside the country have seen no proof that North Korean scientists have yet mastered the technology needed to build a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a missile.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.