RAF Fairford was once again the focus for many aviation enthusiasts in recent weeks, with the United States Air Force (USAF) deploying all three Bomber types on the USAF inventory to the Gloucestershire base. As well as supporting a number of multinational exercises being held within the European theatre, namely BALTOPS and Saber Strike, the deployment was also a chance to show NATO members their continuance of theatre bomber assurance and deterrence roles. Duncan Monk reports from the key strategic base on the exercises and participants.
Designed to enhance flexibility, interoperability , and strengthen combined response capabilities, BALTOPS – which is now in its 45th year and primarily maritime-focused – saw some 4,000 shipboard personnel, 50 ships, numerous submarines, and more than 50 aircraft demonstrating resolve among the Allied and Partner Nations’ forces to ensure a stable situation in the Baltic Sea Region and if called upon, to defend it. With 14 nations taking part, the exercise, which is US-led, saw numerous scenarios played out allowing the participants to hone skills (that one day maybe called upon to confront the broad range of global challenges) across the spectrums of air, surface, sub-surface, mine warfare and amphibious operations.
Like BALTOPS, Saber Strike is again a US-led multinational exercise but unlike its European counterparts, it is a land-based war game and a relative newcomer to the scene with the first held in 2010. Having been conducted annually since, the main aim of Sabre Strike is to train command and control as well as increasing the interoperability of regional partners – this being done through Field and Situational Training work in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, Joint Tactical Air Controller or JTAC training in Estonia, and a Command Post Exercise held in Lithuania.
Col. Jared Kennish, 322nd Air Expeditionary Group commander said, “These exercises are an excellent opportunity to display our ability for sustained regional stability and security in different areas of operations.” Adding, “[how they were] excited for the opportunity to work side-by-side with our NATO and regional partners integrating the strategic bomber with multi-national operations in a variety of scenarios and operating from a strategic forward location in European Command (EUCOM) is integral to our defence capabilities and vital to global security.”
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Beck, 28th Aircraft Maintenance commander, said that this was a “really unique opportunity here. On a routine day-to-day basis we get to train with the land, air and naval forces of both NATO allies and partners in the region,” adding “[and] by doing this we’re able to validate our safe, secure, effective and ready deterrent bomber force first hand.”
Until fairly recently, the deployment of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) bombers to the European theatre has been a rare occurrence – especially when compared to the number seen in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the chances of seeing the likes of a B-52, B-1B or a B-2 in the UK was relegated to the odd ‘gas-n-go’, crew rest or when diverting in. However, in recent years, RAF Fairford has seen an influx of bomber deployments with all three types forward deploying to the base at some point along with supporting personnel in support of the AFGSC’s mission, to ‘Provide strategic deterrence, global strike and combat support… anytime, anywhere’.
That said, 2017 saw some 800 Airmen and eight bombers – three B-25Hs of the 2nd Bomber Wing (BW) at Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB), three B-1Bs of the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth AFB and two B-2A ‘Spirits’ from Whiteman AFB’s 509th BW – deploy to the base at the beginning of June for a two week period.
“This short-term deployment demonstrates the flexible global strike capabilities of the US bomber force, and ensures bomber crews maintain a state of readiness,” said Kennish.
Despite the fact AFGSC routinely conduct bomber operations around the globe, building enduring relationships as they do, the forward deployment of all three platforms to Fairford was the very first time they had been located in the European Theater together – something which has only happened once before in the command’s history in August of last year at Anderson AFB, Guam.
It should be noted however that although operating from Fairford, the B-2s were not actively involved in either BALTOPS or Saber Strike but instead flying theatre bomber assurance and deterrence missions solely – the responsibility of deterring a strategic attack against the US and its allies is the fundamental mission of AFGSC.
When asked about this kind of mission, Col. Jared Kennish said, “The bomber assurance and deterrence missions these aircraft are supporting are key to reinforcing our commitment to our allies in NATO in a very visible, very tangible way that we stand shoulder to shoulder with them, no matter what”.
A number of USAF Airmen from Whiteman AFB, Missouri, support the B-2 operation, many of which are members of the Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Bomb Wing. The Guard wing has undergone and cleared a number of operational performance evaluations and readiness assessments to obtain full operational capability in performing the B-2s mission alongside the active duty 509th Bomb Wing, both at Whiteman and when forward deployed.
Notwithstanding, operating all three types in the same theatre of operations not only shows that the USAF can integrate the aircrafts ‘unique’ capabilities with each other, it also allows the US as Lt. Col. Daniel Diehl, 37th Squadron Commander put it “[to] demonstrate their commitment to supporting global security and our ability to launch a credible strategic force”. Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, 3rd Air Force and 17th Expeditionary Air Force commander, cemented this. “Together, our bombers, along with the bomber Airmen who maintain and operate them, offer a robust, lethal and reliable capability that remains a critical component of global security.
Bringing together eight bombers from different bases and Major Commands within the USAF is no easy task but as Col. Kennish put it, “We were able to make this one of the most visible bomber deployments in the European theatre in recent memory. This is another great milestone for the three bomber platforms of 8th Air Force and AFGSC” also adding “This team made it seem easy!”
As well as exercising the aircraft, crews and personnel, the deployment also allowed the base itself to be exercised as the U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa’s forward operating bomber location, while providing the basis for the integration and interaction with NATO allies and partner nations gained throughout the duration.
Col. Kennish continues “This deployment allows us to not only become more familiar operating within the European area of operations, but it also enables us to increase our interoperability with our fellow Airmen and regional partners. This provides us the opportunity to build a global perspective that all bomber Airmen must have and [also] provides us with an experience that we couldn’t replicate at our home station.” Adding to that theme, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Kimmie Samuel, 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons section chief said, “The weather, rain, wind…this terrain is significantly different here versus back home. Coming into this environment offers a setting that we’re not familiar with, prepping for the unknown”.
The inclusion of bombers in both BALTOPS and Saber Strike has, as can be expected, been long-planned to ensure that the operational requirements and tempo was met professionally, safely and on time. In terms of maintenance, with three B-1Bs and B-52s present, the ground crews were responsible for ensuring that at least two (the preeminent airframes) of each were ‘mission capable’ most days for the planned sorties – some 40 of which were flown over the duration. U.S. Air Force Maj. Sarah Fortin an instructor pilot from the 20th BS who flew a number of B-52 sorties through the deployment has this to say, “This provides our Airmen the opportunity to understand this big picture of interoperability.
However, as can be imagined, given the sheer complexity of the types there is always a chance that a snag or issue can crop up during any phase of a mission – be it in flight, on the ground or even while undergoing maintenance, be it on-line, routine or unexpected. In fact, it would appear that during the exercise just one sortie was lost – a fuel leak leading to one of the B-52s calling a ‘ground abort’. As U.S. Air Force Capt. Fleming Thompson, the wing weapons officer from 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron had put it, “They set a tempo. They set a bar out there for what they expect of us, and we try to get over the bar.”
Both exercises saw the participating B-52s and B-1Bs combine their key bomber capabilities, these including simulated mine laying operations during BALTOPS and dropping inert ordnance during Saber Strike. Throughout the deployment, some 40 munitions were dropped including a mixture of mines, BDU-56s and BDU-50s. Not to be out done, both B-2s flew from their home base at Whiteman AFB via DIO Holbeach Air Weapons Range, each dropping six inert munitions.
“The ability to drop all planned munitions in a moment’s notice from any forward deployed location further proves the U.S. resolve in working with our NATO partners and regional allies to deter any and all adversary aggression,” said Kennish. “It also exemplifies the great relationship with have with our regional partners. Nothing can replace the training opportunity to employ weapons with our international partners.”
The USAF, and in particular the AFGSC, once again proved it can rapidly deploy and operate any of its diverse bomber platforms from any country and continent. This first operational deployment of the B-52H, B-1B and B-2A together at one base within the European Theatre was an impressive show of force supporting NATO allies and a deterrent to would be aggressors.
- B-52H 60-0002/LA (Green Stripe) ‘Let’s Roll ‘ 2nd BW
- B-52H 60-0021/LA (Red Stripe) ‘Black Jack’
- B-52H 61-0020/LA (Blue Stripe) ‘The Big Stick’ 20th BS
- B-1B 85-0083/EL ‘Overnight Delivery’ 34th BS (Black/Red Stripe)
- B-1B 85-0084/EL ‘Hard Rain’ 34th BS (Black/Red Stripe)
- B-1B 86-0139/EL ‘Drifter’ 34th BS (Black/Red Stripe)
- B-1B 86-0120/EL (Tiger Stripe) 37th BS – Non-Exercise Related, diverted from Ramstein Air Base on June 12 with an In Flight Emergency
- B-2 82-1068 ‘Spirit of New York’ 509th BW
- B-2 86-0329 ‘Spirit of Missouri’ 509th BW