B-2 bombers undertook an elephant walk to showcase American strategic deterrence

The exercise saw eight aircraft take off from the runway at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.
Loukia Papadopoulos

An elephant walk is a common part of airpower exercises by the U.S. military, but when undertaken properly, it never fails to impress. This is particularly true of the eight B-2 Spirit stealth bombers that took to the runway at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, during the Spirit Vigilance 22 training exercise, according to a report by The Drive published on Tuesday.

The exercise is designed to focus on the training and readiness of airmen directly involved in bomber operations, said the U.S. Department of Defense on its website. 

Both the 509th and 131st Bomb Wings at Whiteman were present during the event that ended on November 7 and marked the first time that the flying-wing bombers had been involved in a mass launch of this scale.

Showcasing readiness

The Cold War-era Strategic Air Command was famous for its minimum interval takeoffs (MITO) but now the U.S. Air Force bombers no longer sit and wait on 24-hour alert. Today, elephant walks are mainly about showcasing readiness and the ability to get large numbers of aircraft into the air rapidly and while these kinds of drills have increased in numbers within the U.S. military in recent years, it’s not very common to see bombers involved. And when it comes to stealth bombers, that simply does not happen.

The Air Force has in its arsenal only 20 B-2s, which means that the eight aircraft in the elephant walk are 40 percent of the entire force of these ‘silver bullet’ assets. Under the New Start Treaty, it would have taken a lot of coordination to get even eight jets in the same air at the same time.  

“We are displaying a capability here to rapidly generate and deploy [the B-2] under greater scrutiny and time restraints than the normal day-to-day flying mission,” said Capt. Richard Collier, 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron director of operations, of the Spirit Vigilance exercise. “Here we demonstrate to our near-peer adversaries, as well as to ourselves, how well we can perform.”

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American strategic deterrence

In times of peace, the value of the B-2 lies in it being a clear symbol of American strategic deterrence.

“Simply put, the B-2 is the world's most strategic aircraft,” said Col. Geoffrey Steeves, 509th Operations Group commander. “It is the only aircraft on the planet that combines stealth, payload, and long-range strike. We are charged with delivering the nation’s most powerful weapons for our most important missions.”

Some claim that the B-2’s latest demonstration was targeting North Korea, amid a period of rising tensions with the nation. However, the event was completed before the most recent test of the North Korean Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. It is speculated to have also been a signal to China, which recently organized a bomber elephant walk of its own with eight H-6Ks, among the latest and most powerful missile-carrier versions of the H-6.

Meanwhile, the last B-2s are not expected to be retired until the early 2030s, indicating there may just be many more elephant walks, although they may not showcase quite as many examples of the iconic stealth bomber as very few exist. The aircraft most notably detonated its first long-range stealth mission in August 2022.