On June 5th, arriving under the callsign ZARP 43/44/45, three US Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bombers from the 5th Bomb Wing out of Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota landed at RAF Fairford for a short two week deployment as part of the BALTOPS 15 and SABER STRIKE 15 exercises in Europe.

BALTOPS (Baltic Operations) is an annual military exercise, held since 1971 and sponsored by the Commander, United States Naval Forces Europe, taking place in the Baltic Sea and the regions surrounding it. The purpose of BALTOPS is to train gunnery, replenishment at sea, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), radar tracking & interception, mine countermeasures, seamanship, search and rescue, maritime interdiction operations and scenarios dealing with potential real world crises and maritime security.

SABER STRIKE is a long-standing US Army Europe-led cooperative training exercise conducted annually since 2010. The aim of the exercise is to improve the cooperation and capabilities of the participating nations for future contingency operations. This year’s exercise objectives facilitate cooperation amongst Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The exercise trains participants on command and control as well as interoperability with regional partners, and consists of Field and Situational Training Exercises conducted in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, Joint Tactical Air Controller training in Estonia, and a Command Post Exercise conducted in Lithuania.

The B-52 deployment was aimed to demonstrate the ability of theUnited States to project its flexible, long-range global strike capability, and provides opportunities to synchronise strategic activities and capabilities with allies and partners in the US European Command area of operations. Lt Col. Brad Dyer of the 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron commander explained:

“Part of this mission has been the forward deployment to RAF Fairford which is a very strategic location for us from a bomber aspect because it gives us the capability to forward deploy and to exercise our strategic bombing capability from not only the United States but also from our allied forces here. It’s been a great opportunity for us to assure our allies in addition to deterring any strategic attacks as well.”

The deployment demonstrates the long-standing relationship between the US and UK. Elevating RAF Fairford to active status is a key component to this deployment due to the critical capabilities of the base – the fully-developed and tested infrastructure and support facilities at the airfield, as well as its strategic location and unique capabilities, establish the base as a key location for large-scale exercises and readiness operations and an ideal site for bomber operations.

RAF Fairford has a long history of bomber operations, serving the contingency requirements of the US and Royal Air Forces and their NATO partners since it first opened in 1944. Most recently, RAF Fairford served as a forward operating base for deployed B-52s and B-2s in June 2014. Both platforms conducted training evolutions in and around the UK during this time and B-52s participated in the 70th anniversary of D-Day commemoration events.

During the current short-term deployment, the strategic bombers – supported by more than 330 Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen – conducted training flights with ground and naval forces around the region and participated in multinational Exercises BALTOPS 15 and SABER STRIKE 15 over international waters in the Baltic Sea and the territory of the Baltic States and Poland. The bombers integrated into several exercise activities, including air intercept training, simulated mining operations during BALTOPS, inert ordnance drops during SABER STRIKE, and close air support. Each activity provides unique opportunities for bomber crews to integrate and train with other United States European Command components and regional allies and partners while exercising the U.S.’s key bomber capabilities. Lieutenant Colonel Dyer went on to explain:

“For BALTOPS we’re executing integrated exercises with both our United States/European command forces here, as well as allied forces in the Baltic region. We are integrating with aircraft from 15 different nations as well as maritime forces as well. We will be executing mine drops there as part of the exercise and we will be integrating with a lot of air assets. The other exercise that we are integrating with is SABER STRIKE which is out around Poland and surrounding countries and we are going to be doing close air support (CAS) and ground strikes. One of the highlights of our time here already has been employing inert ordinance in Latvia using Latvian controllers, which is actually the first time the B-52 has dropped inert ordinance in Latvia. So that’s been a great experience for our crew while we’ve been out here exercising.”

During typical sorties, aircrew members demonstrated the B-52’s ability to project strength to allied forces and adversaries with simulated air strikes, by flying into allied airspace and completing combat air support operations with Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) from Poland. Major Luke Dellenbach, the 69th Bomb Squadron Director of Staff said:

“We practice our capabilities all the time at Minot AFB, but to do it in Poland and with our allies is good training. Doing what we normally do but across the world in allied air space shows the global deterrence factor of being a Cold War era aircraft. The BUFFs have been around a long time, we still got it. We’re still doing what we’ve been doing for over 50 years.”

Dellenbach said he believed the JTACs received good training on how a B-52 operates compared to the fighters they are used to working with. Minot aircrew members also received great training by conducting close air support with allies who have never worked with a bomber.

Crew experience on the B-52 was something that was noteworthy too; six B-52 crews were brought to the exercises. The range of crews was from the very young who have just graduated on the aircraft to those who have been with the B-52 fleet for over 20 years! Lieutenant Colonel Dyer explained the thinking behind bringing crews to exercises:

“As a general rule we try and cycle our crews through so that they all have the opportunity to train in theatre. There are a couple that were here last year but for the most part we are trying to give everybody that opportunity so they all have that experience. It’s been a good opportunity for all.”

Long duration missions are integral part of flying the B-52 and the crews during BALTOPS and SABER STRIKE were frequently out for several hours carrying out sorties for both exercises. Capt. Joe ‘Killer’ Calcitrai a B-52 pilot from of the 23rd Bomb Squadron explains a bit about mission endurance and some of the sorties he has personally flown while deployed to RAF Fairford:

“Normally about 8-9 hours is a normal training mission and that’s been the typical duration for a BALTOPS and SABER STRIKE mission. The longest missions I’ve flown is 15 hours, but there are even longer flights than that which we may do for bigger exercises. It’s a long time to be up there but we bring along plenty of food and drink and we’ll also throw some extra crew members on there too and rotate through them to get a bit of rest.

On a sortie that I just did the other day we integrated with Swedish and US fighters doing a simulated bombing run and they were supporting as they would in combat. Other missions involve dropping simulated weapons with troops on the ground for the SABER STRIKE missions”

As part of BALTOPS exercise the B-52s were tasked with mine dropping, something that doesn’t seem like a common mission that a B-52 would undertake, Captain Calcitrai was asked how often do crews practice or carry out such a mission:

“That is one of our missions in the B-52 and we do practice it regularly. The opportunity that we have here though to integrate with our allied forces here is huge. We do train for this quite often back in the United States but the opportunity we have to be out here executing it in theatre is great for us.”

As part of the mine dropping mission there was also US Navy presence during the deployment to RAF Fairford, with Minemen from the Navy Munitions Command Unit Charleston and Airmen from the 5th Munitions Squadron out of Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, building several inert MK-62 Quick Strike Mines. Petty Officer 1st Class David Toyloy, Navy Munitions Command Unit Charleston mineman explained his role in the mine armament:

“These bombs are configured for the B-52 internal bomb bay, we build them up, and once they’re built up and quality assurance signs off on them, we turn them over to the Air Force for delivery.”

With the B-52 in its 60th year of service and showing no signs of immediate retirement or replacement (current engineering analysis of the B-52’s life span expects it to extend beyond the year 2040), Captain Calcitrai explains some of the planned upgrades for the type:

“Updating the bomb bay to carry smart weapons, right now we only carry them on the wings but the upgrade is coming in a matter of months. It’s really just wiring some of the hardpoints so the aircraft can talk to the weapons (1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade). That’s been tested and approved and being implemented. Also the bay is getting a new rotary launcher like the B-1B and B-2 have.

Another area being looked at is putting in small diameter weapons (SDW) and further extending the bombers Combat Air Support role. The leaning and thinking is more towards smaller munitions and direct precision weapons”

The CAS role for the bomber, although not that new (B-52s have flown CAS missions since 1967 and the B-1B has been a CAS weapon since 2001) seems to be one that is ever growing – and with the potential retirement of the A-10C it’s area capability gap that other types will need to fill, and in some respects the B-52 could be viewed as the ultimate CAS weapon.

Under the first phase of the upgrade, the rotary launcher will be able to hold 24 GBU-38 500lb JDAMs or 20 GBU-31 2,000lb JDAMs. Laser guided JDAMs and other smart gravity and glide bombs will follow soon after. Soon, the launcher will be able to use stand-off weapons such as the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and the Miniature Air Launched Decoy Jammers (MALD-J).

Going forwards in future BALTOPS exercises, a B-52 could be assigned to the anti-ship warfare role and may have half a rack of AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs), for hitting key ports, while the other half is full of Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM).

The upgrade from the Litening Advanced Targeting Pod to the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod is also another area that keeps the B-52 relevant. Captain Calcitrai explained how it was used during these exercises:

“The Sniper pod is fitted, but wasn’t specifically deployed to be used during this deployment but it has been used for looking at the target when on a bombing run but normally its employed when using laser guided munitions and using the laser designator on it. We used it as a picture for confirming the spot that we are simulating dropping weapons on.”

In line with integrating bomber capabilities, on the 7th June, two B-2A Spirits were deployed from Whiteman AFB, Missouri and flew direct to RAF Fairford on a Global Power mission using callsign PATH 11/12. Upon landing the aircraft were refuelled by Whiteman AFB crew chiefs during a hot-pit refuelling (hot pit refuelling is a procedure to rapidly refuel aircraft while their engines are running) and a crew change was initiated as well. After just two hours on the ground one of the B-2s departed back to Whiteman using callsign SALMA 11 (the other B-2 departed on the 9th of June using callsign SPIRIT 11 after a GPS system failure on the aircraft prevented it from departing with SALMA 11).

The same Global Power mission was then repeated on the 8th June with two B-2A Spirits, using callsign PANTS 11/12 arriving just before sunset, again with a hot pit refuelling and crew change carried out within a two hour window. The pair then departed back to Whiteman AFB later that evening as COLON 11/12.

This was a further demonstration of the global reach abilities of US Strategic Command assets. Lieutenant Colonel Dyer explains:

“The other part of the deployment that we’ve had an opportunity to exercise is from our B-2 aircraft out of Whiteman AFB. They executed long duration missions from Whiteman and did hot pit refuelling, turned the aircrew and the jets while their engines were running and took them back to Whiteman AFB, again a great opportunity for our forces from the US to assure our allies in theatre of that strategic bombing capability.”

It seems that RAF Fairford has not been forgotten in the minds of the US Department of Defence military strategists as to its strategic importance within the global theatre of operations, and especially within Europe. With Russian-Western relations at an all time low, tensions in the Ukraine and increasing destabilisation in Syria, Iraq with the rise of ISIS and the wider Asian continent, the need to be ready to deploy assets such as B-52s and B-2s quickly and efficiently seems to be at the front of the minds of US military planners. Not only that but Global Power exercises such as this one also send out the message that the US has the ability to strike anywhere in the world on their terms.

Based on what the commanders from both the B-2 and B-52 squadrons have said about the valuable experience gained from such a deployment by all those who took part, one would not be surprised to hear of future Global Power exercises at RAF Fairford taking place in the not too distant future.

The bomber deployment ran from the 5th June 2015 through to the 20th June 2015. Below is a list of aircraft that took part in the exercises:

  • B-52H Stratofortress 60-0018/MT – 5th Bomb Wing / 69th Bomb Squadron
  • B-52H Stratofortress 60-0047/MT – 5th Bomb Wing / 69th Bomb Squadron
  • B-52H Stratofortress 61-0040/MT – 5th Bomb Wing / 23rd Bomb Squadron
  • B-2A Spirit 88-0329/WM “Spirit of Missouri” – 509th Bomb Wing / 393rd Bomb Squadron
  • B-2A Spirit 82-1068/WM “Spirit of New York” – 509th Bomb Wing / 393rd Bomb Squadron
  • B-2A Spirit 82-1069/WM “Spirit of Indiana” – 509th Bomb Wing / 393rd Bomb Squadron
  • B-2A Spirit 90-0040/WM “Spirit of Alaska” – 509th Bomb Wing / 393rd Bomb Squadron

For their parts in the production of this article, AeroResource would like to extend their sincere thanks to:

  • 1st Lieutenant Alexis McGee – 501st Combat Support Wing – Chief, Public Affairs
  • Master Sergeant Zachary Melin – USAF Global Strike Command – Public Affairs
  • Captain Chris Mesnard – USAF Global Strike Command – Public Affairs
  • Lieutenant Colonel Brad Dyer – 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron – Commander
  • Captain Joe Calcitrai – 23rd Bomb Squadron