The Air Force has completed construction of two of five cocoon-like hangar systems that will allow the B-2 to be deployed to forward locations overseas. The Air Force has not confirmed the shelters’ location.

The Air Force has completed construction of two of five cocoon-like hangar systems that will allow the B-2 to be deployed to forward locations overseas. The Air Force has not confirmed the shelters’ location. (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Now you see them; now you don’t.

Officially, the Air Force won’t confirm its two new high-tech portable B-2 shelters have been erected on Diego Garcia — even though a satellite photo, taken by Imagesat International in November and posted to the Web site, shows them there.

The Air Force has, however, confirmed that of the five transportable shelters on order, two have been completed.

“You see them taken from space at the GlobalSecurity Web site,” Air Combat Command spokesman Maj. Roger Lawson conceded to Stars and Stripes. “They’re there.”

But based on the most recent word from Air Force headquarters, he said he couldn’t officially confirm where they are.

“We haven’t been issued any new guidance, so we aren’t talking about where we put them,” Lawson said.

The satellite photos show the shelters on the flight line of Diego Garcia, a British-controlled island in the Indian Ocean.

The huge cocoonlike hangar systems will let the B-2 be deployed to forward locations overseas, significantly shortening combat missions, Lt. Col. Myron Majors, commander of the squadron that erected the shelters, said in an Air Force news release posted this week to the service’s Air Force Link.

The Air Force has said it also wants to forward-deploy B-2s to a second location, RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, England, and possibly a third, Guam.

Basing the aircraft at Diego Garcia would reduce the flight distance to Baghdad, Iraq, for instance, to about 3,300 miles, compared to 6,800 miles if the bombers launched strikes from their U.S. home at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. Instead of more than 20 hours one way, a flight to Baghdad would take just five hours.

The deployable shelters create a needed environmentally controlled space for maintenance, said Col. Janet Wolfenbarger, B-2 system program director at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

They’re aimed at fixing a problem noticed in 1998 when the B-2 passed through Guam. Maintenance crews found a shortage of temperature-controlled space there needed to maintain the aircraft’s Low Observable, or stealth, coatings and materials, Wolfenbarger said in a news release.

Air Force specifications called for shelters measuring 55 feet high and 250 feet wide. Components can be delivered by 29 C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft.

The shelters can withstand high and low temperature extremes, are air-conditioned and can sustain 110-mph winds. They are built by American Spaceframe Fabricators Inc. of Crystal River, Fla.

Hangars can be taken apart for shipping by boat or plane, and provide more lighting, space and environmental controls than the existing permanent Air Force docks, according to literature posted to the company’s Web site.

“Acquisition cost for five B-2 Shelter Systems with environmental control systems is $21.3 million,” said Air Force spokeswoman Gloria Cales.

She said the five hangars on order consist of the test model, which has been upgraded to equal the final version being used in the field, plus four production-model shelters.

Twenty members of the 49th Materiel Maintenance Squadron from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., spent more than 70 days at a deployed location working 12-hour shifts to erect the portable shelters.

Dispatching the Missouri-based aircraft to Diego Garcia or Britain would mark the first time the $2 billion bomber is being based overseas.

B-2s from Whiteman’s 509th Bomb Wing flew three days of missions soon after Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001.

They undertook 44-hour missions that included bombing of targets in Afghanistan, then recovered at Diego Garcia. There the inbound crew left the plane, the bomber was refueled, and a fresh crew flew the aircraft directly back to Whiteman.

During an interview with Stars and Stripes in September, Air Force Chief of Staff John P. Jumper said: “There’s never been a prohibition on basing these planes outside the U.S.”

He added that the service plans to house the B-2 in the portable shelter “to get it closer to the fight.”

Pat Dickson contributed to this report.

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