by DAVID AXE

The most expensive warplane in history—and arguably the deadliest—is also one of the least available for combat.

The U.S. Air Force bought 21 B-2 stealth bombers from Northrop Grumman in the 1980s and 1990s at a price of more than $2 billion apiece, if you count development costs. One crashed on Guam in 2008, leaving 20 in the active fleet. But declining readiness—owing to maintenance and upgrades, wear and tear and cash shortages—routinely grounds 11 of the radar-evading, bat-wing bombers.

Just nine stealth bombers comprise America’s entire arsenal for directly striking, from the air, heavily defended targets over long range. And if you don’t count the several planes being used to train new aircrews, as the Air Force doesn’t, the number drops again to a mere handful.

This is a problem. If Pres. Barack Obama ordered the military to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria or hit Iranian nuclear facilities or strike back in the event of North Korean aggression, the B-2s would be part of the first wave alongside ship- and submarine-launched cruise missiles.

That’s what happened over Libya in March 2011, when three B-2s flying from their main base in Missouri destroyed 45 aircraft shelters at a military airfield in Ghardabiya, Libya, smashing potentially dozens of regime warplanes in a single pass and clearing the way for less stealthy aircraft to enforce the NATO no-fly zone protecting rebel forces.

Today the Air Force could probably muster three B-2s. But it would be tough. And sending three of the twin-engine warplanes over, say, Syria would sap the Pentagon’s strength in the Pacific, where the B-2s usually maintain a regular presence.

There are several reasons for the stealth bombers’ poor availability. At any given time three of the B-2s are at an Air Force depot in California being repaired, rebuilt and upgraded with new electronics. Another is at Edwards Air Force Base in California for tests. The rest are at the Missouri base, where routine maintenance keeps around half in their hangars.

The bomber’s official readiness rate is 47 percent, compared to 75 percent and 58 percent respectively for the older B-52 and B-1 bombers. The flying branch has 63 1980s-vintage B-1s and 76 B-52s dating from the ‘60s. The B-2s are harder to maintain than the other models because of their delicate radar-absorbing coatings.

But Congressional politics likely play a role, too. The Air Force has seen its maintenance accounts squeezed by the 10-percent automatic budget cuts known as “sequestration” and by Congress’ inability to agree on a fresh full-year’s budget, instead holding spending to previous years’ levels. Sequestration would seem to account for the eight-percentage-point reduction in the B-2's availability between 2010 and 2013.

The Air Force has a plan to boost the size of its available first-day strike force. The flying branch is secretly developing a new bomber with roughly the same stealth qualities as the B-2—and it wants 100 of them at a reduced price of just $550 million apiece. The new Long-Range Strike Bomber could replace the B-1s and B-52s starting in the 2020s, provided there are no nasty surprises in its development.

But even a bigger fleet of new radar-evading bombers would be subject to the financial squeeze if Congress can’t figure out how to fund government. If Washington wants to be able to attack anything, anywhere, anytime, it’s got to learn to pay for it.

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