Developmental Flight Testing is all about the data. That’s it. Period. Engineers, scientists, and operators conduct tests to get data. Data is the exact opposite of politics, especially today’s politics represented by a comical and debilitating election season. Data is truth. The impact of the data on the world is much larger than the impact on those that pursue developmental and operational flight testing.

Recently, a B-2 stealth bomber dropped 2 B-61 bombs (without nuclear warheads) as part of a larger multi-aircraft test.  This test involved months of preparation, terabytes of scientific computations, and a ridiculous amount of coordination. The test team pulled it off masterfully, mostly because they are absolute experts in their fields. The results of this test will influence design parameters, maintenance procedures, logistical chains, mission preparation, among many other things. However, I’m certain the aircrew did not ask the test director how this test was going to influence Putin’s actions in Syria and Ukraine. I’m equally certain this test will make a sizable dent in Putin’s decision matrix.

B-2 drops an inert B-61. Credit: National Nuclear Security Administration
B-2 drops an inert B-61. Credit: National Nuclear Security Administration

Testing has played an important part in strategic deterrence from the early days of deterrence theory. There has always been a thin line between publicizing results of tests to enhance deterrence and classifying results to hide capability. A vast majority of our nuclear-related testing is done in full view of the public because the United States never actually wants to use them. Nukes are best used in a deterrent role. The same thing goes for our missile defense system. The US does not want to use the missile defense system, so it shows the world how it works, it shows the world that launching missiles against North America is a bad idea and our adversaries choose not to do so. Deterrence.

The opposite was true for stealth technology. Stealth was developed in secret. The capability was something the US did not want the world to know. That remained true up to a certain point where the deterrent value of the capability exceeded the covert value of the capability. Stealth made the adversary defenseless to air power, but the adversary never knew that. Our other systems created enough deterrent value, so the US capability to penetrate defenses had no impact on deterrence. But adversary defenses got better. So good that the adversary started thinking that it could defend against US attacks. The adversary started believing they could win. If the adversary believes their actions will not be met and punished, then deterrence no longer works. That was the point we showed the world ‘stealth.’ That reveal reinforced deterrence across the board, and the adversary recognized their actions would be met and punished.

Much of the B-21 Raider is and will remain classified throughout its long journey of developmental testing. The exact capabilities of the B-21 will not necessarily enhance deterrence, but the mere fact that the US is building a B-21 does have deterrent value. Details in the B-21’s development will be non-existent, but milestones will most likely be publicized. The world may never know the exact range and payload of the B-21, but the world will know about its first flight. The fact the B-21 is flying will provide enough deterrent value, and the lack of details will only serve to enhance that deterrence.

Inert B-61 test bomb strikes its target. Credit: National Nuclear Security Administration
Inert B-61 test bomb strikes its target. Credit: National Nuclear Security Administration

Testing gets you much more than data. It also acts to enhance deterrence and reassure allies, but only when the tests work. Recent failures in LCS and F-35 have exposed weakness, the kind that deteriorates deterrence. Issues with fielding the F-35, documented deficiencies in certain mission areas, combined with a pilot shortage provide adversaries with road maps to success against the US. From a strategic perspective, this type of display of weakness is an invitation to adversaries to attempt parity. Failures like this make aggression and war more likely.

A fully functioning, ass-kicking LCS deters aggression in littoral waters. An LCS that can’t sail without breaking down invites aggression in littoral waters. An F-35 that demonstrates an earth-shaking close-air-support capability deters such battles from ever occurring. An F-35 that can’t play slow-and-low in the dirt invites adversaries to close ranks with US ground forces. A B-2 that demonstrates dropping two new nuclear bomb designs both deters adversaries and reassures allies. If that B-2 testing had failed, the repercussions would be felt throughout NATO and the world.

It has always been a point of contention as to whether testing results should be public or not. There are many reasons to publicize test results, but few reasons to classify them. If there was ever a doubt as to whether the United States wants to fight a war, see what data is released, ask why, and then you’ll know the truth. When the US is publicizing test data, it’s because the US does not want the war. Deterrence is the answer.

Christopher Buckley

Content and Production Editor at Angle of Attack
Bomb dropper, High Desert dweller, baller.

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2 thoughts to “Ad Inexporata: The Strategic Impact of Flight Test

  • Paul brack

    Give them disinformation but just enough truth so it believable. We should only know about 10 % of what we think we want to know

    • Christopher Buckley

      Disinformation is tricky when it comes to developmental test. This isn’t war, its science, so telling the truth is vital. Its more of a question of public or classified. I tend to think ‘data’ should be unclassified if it promotes national interest or classified if it promotes national interest. The trick is when it does both.


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