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So the B-2 is perhaps the stealthiest plane ever made. It has proven itself in combat missions when flying by night. But given the retirement of the SR-71 around 1990, I'm surprised the USAF did not place any orders for a reconnaissance version of the B-2. Despite being much slower than the Blackbird, it is much stealthier. Obviously it would be only suitable for night missions but with the advent of thermographic(IR) cameras, it could still be very useful for spy missions over places like North Korea.

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  • $\begingroup$ Related: Why was the U-2 so different from the SR-71? In particular from that answer: "The main reason for the retirement of spy aircraft was the advent of reconnaissance satellites" $\endgroup$
    – Bianfable
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Bianfable one of the limitations of reconnaissance satellites is cloud cover and other atmospheric conditions. That would be the reason to use stealthy reconnaissance planes. Second of all, the U-2 and B-2 are incomparable. The U-2 is over 60 years old and is extremely vulnerable to SAMs. $\endgroup$
    – Mr X
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ Why are you so sure they have not used a B-2 for specialized missions? Do you have clearance? $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ The B-2 isn't as stealthy as you may think. Networks of advanced radars combined with computer algorithms can detect it. The SR-71 could outrun missiles, the U2 could fly extremely high and peer into enemy territory, the B-2 doesn't have any desirable characteristics in a recon airplane. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ Both U-2 and SR-71 were developed to counter surface-air missiles. U-2 flew too high to intercept by the missiles anyone had bothered to build up to that point; defeated by building bigger missiles. The retort was the SR-71 and MiG-25/31, too fast to be decently intercepted by missiles capable of flying that high. So bigger missiles still e.g. S-300, Patriot, Phoenix, R-33 etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 0:00

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Most of the uses the SR-71 had been developed for are now covered by satellites. Optical sensors spy on new structures and objects, infrared sensors find fires, rocket launches and explosions and radar sensors detect moving objects and can peer through clouds. The combination of data from all three sources allows deep insights about technical characteristics and capabilities of foreign developments.

A disadvantage of satellites is their highly predictable overflight schedule, so airborne assets are used to double-check and make surprise visits. However, risking a manned platform for this would open a path to escalation that is better avoided. For that reason, stealthy unmanned reconnaissance platforms have been developed which complement the work of satellites.

One such UAV, the RQ-170 Sentinel, was hijacked electronically by Iran a few years ago, so we know a little more about it. Later, Iran presented a design which was based on the US design.

Shahed 171 Simorgh

Shahed 171 drone. This picture was taken at the Eqtedar 40 defence exhibition in Tehran. Attribution unknown. Source: Wikipedia.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like the RQ-170 isn't such a good design. Especially if it can be detected and electronically hijacked! $\endgroup$
    – Mr X
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Mr X - Nothing is "undetectable". Even a B-2. $\endgroup$
    – WPNSGuy
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 22:52
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The B-2 was never designed to be used as a recon platform.

It's too expensive to operate it as such.

The risk is not worth the benefit given other far less costly options are available.

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Because satellites.

If there was a recon B-2, an R-2, then it would also fly very high. High above (most of) the clouds. So, you have a vulnerable aircraft that can see as much as a satellite.

For tactical recon, you might favor the short reaction time of the spy-plane; but for strategic recon it's much more effective to invest in satellites.

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A B-2 is too expensive.

A B-2 costs, very roughly, \$2 billion to build $130,000/hour to operate. At least 99% of the time it is getting maintenance instead of flying.

A spy satellite costs less than \$10 billion to build. It has no operating costs (space shuttle servicing is no longer available) and it flies all the time.

It is also possible to just buy someone else's images. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1293877/commercial-satellite-imagery-cost-worldwide/

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The SR-71 can carry about 3500 lbs of payload. The SR-71 is the right size for a mach 3 recon aircraft because if it was any smaller it would have less payload, and recon equipment weighs about 3500 lbs. The B-2 can carry about 50,000 lbs of payload. The B-2 is not the right size for a stealth recon aircraft, because recon equipment does not weigh 50,000 lbs.

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  • $\begingroup$ The B-2 has a payload capacity of 20 short tons. A recon version could convert some of that space into extra fuel tanks and give it extra range. It is not the size of the aircraft, it is the size of the radar cross section. The B-2 is larger but has an even weaker radar signature than the SR-71. $\endgroup$
    – Mr X
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 1:39

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