* U.S. officials say aim was to reassure S.Korea and Japan
* Follows string of threats from North Korea
* U.S. also wants to nudge Pyongyang back to nuclear talks
By Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON, March 29 The stealthy,
nuclear-capable U.S. B-2 bomber is a veteran of wars in Iraq and
Libya, but it isn't usually a tool of Washington's statecraft.
Yet on Thursday, the United States sent a pair of the
bat-winged planes on a first-of-its-kind practice run over the
skies of South Korea, conducting what U.S. officials say was a
The aim, the officials said, was two-fold: to reassure U.S.
allies South Korea and Japan in the face of a string of threats
from North Korea, and to nudge Pyongyang back to nuclear talks.
But whether North Korea's young new leader, Kim Jong-un,
interprets the message the way the White House hopes is
anybody's guess. His first reaction, according to North Korean
state media, was to order his country's missiles ready to strike
the United States and South Korea.
A senior U.S. official said Kim's late father, Kim Jong-il,
was at least more predictable: He would issue threats that got
the world's attention without provoking open conflict, and then
use them as leverage in subsequent diplomatic negotiations.
This time, U.S. intelligence analysts are divided over
whether Kim Jong-un is pursuing the same strategy. "It's a
little bit of an 'all bets are off' kind of moment," said the
official, who spoke on condition of anonymity,.
The official said the idea for the practice bombing run,
part of annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises named Foal
Eagle, emerged from government-wide discussions over how to
signal to Seoul and Tokyo that Washington would back them in a
It is less clear whether Washington informed China, North
Korea's neighbor and only major ally, in advance.
The plan was approved by the White House and coordinated
with South Korea and Japan, the official said.
While the 20-year-old B-2 often flies for long durations -
44 hours is the record - Thursday's flight of approximately
37-1/2 hours was the plane's first non-stop mission to the
Korean peninsula and back from Whiteman Air Force Base in
Missouri, Air Force officials said.
With Pyongyang threatening missile strikes on the U.S.
mainland, as well as U.S. bases in Hawaii and Guam, the flight
seemed designed to demonstrate how easy it would be for the
United States to strike back at North Korea.
It is far from clear that Pyongyang, which has had mixed
success in its missile tests, can make good on its own threats.
"This is useful reminder to the South Koreans that the U.S.
nuclear arm can reach out and touch North Korea from anywhere.
We don't need to be sitting there at Osan Air Base," south of
Seoul, said Ralph Cossa, president of the Hawaii-based Pacific
Forum CSIS think tank.
"This also reminds the Chinese that North Korean actions
have consequences. It tells them that the U.S. is taking North
Korean threats seriously but we're not panicking," he added.
The senior U.S. official said that once the Foal Eagle
exercises are concluded, the Obama administration hopes to pivot
to a diplomatic approach to North Korea, and hopes Pyongyang
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to
East Asia in about two weeks, the first of a parade of senior
Washington officials headed toward the region.
Thursday's drill was a rare moment in the limelight for the
B-2 "Spirit" bomber, which began life with a slew of cost and
development troubles for manufacturer Northrop Grumman Corp
but has become a mainstay of U.S. nuclear deterrence.
Long-duration missions, in which the bomber is refueled in
midair, are "a challenge on your body and mind, staying sharp,"
said an Air Force captain and B-2 pilot. Under the service's
security rules, the pilot could only be identified by his radio
call sign, "Flash."
The captain, who did not participate in Thursday's practice
mission over South Korea, said flight doctors have devised
special regimens to keep the plane's two-man crew sharp.
They include 45-minute naps, on a cot in the back of the
plane, that end a half hour before "critical events" such as
in-air refueling or dropping ordinance, he said.
All 20 of the United States' B-2 bombers are based at
Whiteman, and they saw combat during the U.S. invasion of Iraq
and the NATO mission that led to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's
In the 1980s, the Pentagon had planned to buy 132 of the
bombers, whose main mission was to penetrate the Soviet Union's
airspace undetected. The program was drastically cut back after
the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989.
So elite is the B-2 pilot corps that more people have been
in outer space than have flown the aircraft, "Flash" said.