If U.S. forces go to war with Iraq, America's futuristic-looking, batwing-shaped B-2 Stealth bombers will likely lead the way, dropping precision-guided munitions to take out Baghdad's air defenses and other key military facilities.
The charcoal-gray batwing-shaped B-2, one of just 21 in the Air Force's inventory, emerges from the clouds. It climbs smoothly to meet a KC-10 military tanker cruising at an altitude of some 12,000 meters over the midwestern state of Missouri.
The boom operator nestled in the tail of the tanker calls out the narrowing distance, as the 152,000-kilogram stealth aircraft, with its massive 52 meter wingspan, draws ever closer, until, finally, contact is made.
Refuelings, such as this one, observed firsthand by VOA in a rare, close-up view at its home, Whiteman Air Force Base, in the midwestern state of Missouri, make it possible for the B-2 to travel hours on end over tens-of-thousands of kilometers, giving it a global attacking reach.
The commander of the Air Force's only B-2 wing is Colonel Doug Raaberg. He likens the B-2's capabilities to those of an elite police squad, ready to move in on a group of heavily-armed bandits holed up in a house.
"The B-2 bomber was designed specifically to kick the door down and then kill targets. I know that sounds very blunt, but a reality when you have developed the most sophisticated air vehicle platform ever devised," he said.
The kicking and killing he refers to is accomplished with precision-guided weapons like the satellite-guided 900-kilogram J-DAM, or Joint Direct Attack Munition, a bomb like this one being practice-loaded by airmen at the B-2's home base in Missouri.
The $2-billion B-2 can carry up to 16 of them, or it can carry eight of the heavier, more than 2,000-kilo, earth-penetrating GBU-37 "bunker buster" bombs.
In either case, it is a devastating weapons load, allowing a single B-2, with its crew of two, to accomplish what scores of bombers and their aircrews did in World War II.
And with its unique low-profile shape and special radar-absorbing skin, the B-2 should be able to avoid most air defense challenges, giving its crews a greater chance of success than their bombing predecessors more than 50 years ago.
So far, the B-2 has seen conflict twice, first, during the 1999 air war in the Balkans, and, most recently, on the opening night of Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. assault on Taleban and al-Qaida terrorist facilities in Afghanistan that began late last year.
Pilots like Captain "Zulu," identified only by his radio call sign for security reasons, know the B-2's next mission could be Iraq. He says he and the other pilots are ready to go.
"No professional soldier wants to go to war, but if called upon to do so by his country, then I look at it that no warrior wants to be left behind," he said.
This B-2 at Whiteman is only taking off on a training mission. After its refueling, it heads for Alaska to drop two practice bombs, and then flies on to Guam in the Pacific, where a new crew will climb aboard and fly the plane all the way back to Missouri.
Guam, along with the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and an airfield in Fairford, England, will be the B-2's first-ever forward-operating bases in the future, putting the stealth bombers closer to potential adversaries, and enabling them to respond to threats more quickly. In the past, all missions began and ended in Missouri.
It isn't yet clear how many will be deployed abroad, or when they will go. But with tensions rising between the United States and Iraq, the next time stealth bombers like this one head off, it might not just be practice.