RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire is a key strategic forward deployment base for the United States Air Force Global Strike Command. Deployments of strategic bombers to the European theatre are considerably rarer today than they were only a decade ago. During June 2014, Global Strike Command deployed a number of assets for an exercise of their long range capability – and again Fairford was the destination of choice, from where AeroResource reports.

On June 4th, arriving under the callsign EXULT 11/12/13, two US Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bombers from 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, and one from the 5th Bomb Wing out of Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota landed at RAF Fairford for a short two week deployment.

In addition to (but separate from) the B-52 deployment, a pair of Northrop B-2A Spirit “stealth bombers” from the 509th Bomb Wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri arrived on June 8th. The “Spirit of Louisiana” and the “Spirit of Indiana” arrived as DEATH 11 and DEATH 12 and were only to be deployed to Fairford for a week as part of a FAMEX (Familiarisation Exercise). Whilst both types have been occasional visitors to UK airshows, the last time B-2As deployed operationally to the UK was back in 2008 on a Global Power exercise, and for the B-52Hs it was 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, so the possibility of having strategic bombers back on UK soil was of some significance and quite a rare event.

Despite multiple rumours leading up to and during the deployment, the two-week exercise was officially confirmed as a pre-planned deployment to provide local UK navigation training and strengthen the relationship between the two US bomber fleets. Both Barksdale AFB and Whiteman AFB Public Affairs Offices confirmed to AeroResource that neither aircraft were planned to take part in the Operation Sabre Strike or Baltic Ops exercises as frequently rumoured. Lt Col. Brad Cochran, squadron commander of the 393rd Bomb Squadron explains the reason for the B-2 deployment to the UK:

“We are specifically here in the United Kingdom to conduct training missions. It’s a great opportunity for the pilots in the squadron to train in new airspace, new command and control procedures, air traffic control routes, integrate with the B-52 community and to familiarise ourselves with this region. We are capable of being deployed anywhere in the world so this is a fantastic opportunity to come out and train in this area”

More than 150 personnel from the 2nd Expeditionary Air Group were deployed to RAF Fairford in support of the two long-range B-2A stealth bombers. Personnel deployed in support of the forward operation ranged from pilots to maintenance staff through to communications specialists. In terms of B-2 pilot numbers, almost the entirety of the 393rd BS (which consists of 24 pilots) was brought over for the exercise. The aim was familiarisation with deploying to a foreign airbase and getting operationally ready to perform sorties of varying length and complexity.

Typical B-2 sorties tended to consist of one morning and one afternoon flight, with a mission time of around 4-5 hours flying under the SPIRIT callsign in reference to the aircraft type. These sorties tended to consist of NAVEXs (Navigational Exercises) where the crews were simply flying waypoints and getting familiar with UK airspace rules and regulations, integrating missions with the B-52s, through to simulated weapon releases of different types. The aircraft were not scheduled to drop any live munitions while they were deployed to the UK. All the short duration sorties that were conducted were local to the UK, and did not encroach on other areas of European airspace. Another key aspect of their training was air-to-air refuelling. Lieutenant Colonel Cochran went on to explain:

“We are conducting air refuelling training as well as that’s a critical piece to long range strike, so it gives us a great opportunity to practice with the tankers based in Europe and continue to hone our air refuelling skills.”

Air-to-air refuelling is vital for long-range Global Power missions as it significantly extends the strike range of the bomber fleet, and so this exercise provided the 100th Air Refuelling Wing crews out of RAF Mildenhall some valuable training refuelling B-2s – which they don’t commonly have the chance to do so. Whilst the 100th ARW crews (and KC-135 crews in general) do not have to stay current on specific aircraft types – rather they must be current to operate with “heavy” and “fighter” types – the opportunity to operate with B-2s and B-52s significantly increases the effectiveness and familiarity for both sets of aircrew.

The B-2 crews did conduct a single long range 20+ hour mission with both aircraft which took off on the evening of the 11th June and headed south over the Atlantic, returning on Thursday afternoon using the callsign ICOSA 11/12. This mission was in part to prove the ability of the B-2 fleet to conduct its customary extreme duration missions, but from a base away from their home location at Whiteman.

The ability to do different duration type missions was something that Lt Col Cochran emphasised on:

“We are conducting both long and short duration sorties, with one long duration sortie planned; the airfield here gives us great flexibility in order to practice those skills for those sorties to make us ever combat ready”

Finally Lieutenant Colonel Cochran was asked about any potential future B-2 deployments to the UK, he stated that no future deployments have been planned at this time but would welcome the opportunity to come back and train in this AOR (Area Of Responsibility) at any time.

Of the 24 B-2 pilots participating in the exercise it was also a chance for a British pilot to return home. Flight Lieutenant Ian Hart who is currently serving as an exchange pilot with the United States Air Force gathered much attention both inside and outside of the fence. Ian started his aviation career by joining the RAF in 2002, and spent three and a half years flying the Panavia Tornado GR4 at RAF Marham with 9 Squadron, before moving up to 15 Sqn OCU at RAF Lossiemouth prior to being selected for the exclusive B-2 program with 13th Bomb Squadron.

On the differences between the Tornado GR4 and the B-2 as a weapons system, Flt Lt Hart said:

“The B-2 is totally different to the Tornado GR4. As a pilot you get much more involved in the systems management of the aircraft. In the B-2 we sit side-by-side as two pilots, not a pilot and a Weapons Systems Operator sitting in tandem, and we divide up the roles of pilot and mission commander between us. It’s a low-observable asset and so the tactical considerations are totally different and new to me. In a Tornado my longest sortie was eight hours over Iraq but in the B-2 I’ve already done a training sortie of over 20 hours.”

Now more than two years into his exchange posting, Flt Lt Hart has qualified as an instructor pilot on the 13th Bomb Squadron based at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. He is also a declared combat ready pilot although involvement in any military operation is subject to UK governmental approval. Flt Lt Hart was asked about the challenges faced on deploying an asset like the B-2 the places like Guam, Diego Garcia & Fairford and what he was bringing to the table for the deployment to the UK:

“Each of these locations have got unique characteristics about them that make them suitable. It’s not the easiest platform (the B-2) to take anywhere as you want to be very careful with it, so it’s nice to be able to go to these locations and train with it. Each time we go back to these places on deployment things change and there are new challenges with how you work the command and control and integrate with it, how the assets work and normal for me as I’m familiar with RAF procedures but the rest of the squadron haven’t flown in the UK airspace, so it’s interesting to be back in the UK and telling the rest of the guys things I’ve been asking them for 2.5 years about flying in US airspace!”

The B-52 deployment of three aircraft to RAF Fairford followed a similar theme to that of the B-2s as Lt. Col. Ryan Link, 96th Bomb Squadron commander, Barksdale AFB explains:

“We’ve been flying local training sorties, we are integrating with the 100 ARW and flying our usual missions which are your standard simulated bombing missions, and pilots are also doing touch-and-goes and approach/pattern work at Fairford”

Again the main focus of the exercise was all geared towards familiarisation and integration. The B-52 crews flew short duration sorties of 5-8 hours, all confined within the United Kingdom – with crews from the different squadrons (20th BS, 23rd BS, 96th BS, 343rd BS) being rotated around the three aircraft. Each mission was flown  with only one crew onboard, meaning that no crew swaps were conducted to extend mission duration. Typical sortie consisted of a pair of B-52s departing in the morning using the DOOM callsign and arriving back in the afternoon, in some instances doing some approach/pattern work (the B-52s unusual nose down take off profile – due to the high incidence of the wing – and smoky Pratt & Whitney JT3D engines resulted in some very spectacular approaches and rollers!). Like with the B-2s the sorties were mainly concerned with navigation, airspace familiarisation, air to air refuelling and simulated weapons releases. The crews practiced simulated missile launches and bomb drops with just about every type of conventional munition that the B-52 can carry according to Lt. Col. Link. Air to Air Refuelling training was mainly for the benefit of the 100thARW, to allow them to exercise with different receiver types (as with the B-2A). The sorties consisted of several contacts, with each B-52 moving in and out of contact multiple times for the most training use to the Boom Operators. Although no fuel was transferred, a typical fuel load would be approximately 30,000lbs – and with all fuel pumps operating on the KC-135, this could be transferred at a max rate of 6,800 pounds per minute.

Both the Stratofortress and Stratotanker are 1950s era airframes, with updated systems to keep them current. As such, it can be difficult to make the systems aboard each aircraft cooperate, and the B-52s may choose to go into an override mode called Tanker Manual Operation – normally the KC-135 uses “Automatic Contact” that automatically triggers toggles to latch onto each other during refuelling. In override, the B-52 will position the boom inside the receptacle and manually trigger the contact – providing the boom operator and pilots in the KC-135 with a contact light illumination, which indicates when the B-52 is ready to begin receiving fuel. The boom on the KC-135 can extend 22 feet, whilst the B-52s have a limit of 18 feet from the tanker, giving a 4 foot safety zone to refuel in. For heavy aircraft such as the B-52, when operating as a flight the second aircraft is held a mile back in trail from the tanker whilst the first refuels – unlike the smaller and more agile fighters which can hold station on the KC-135  wingtip.

Joining with the tanker can be achieved through several methods. An overtaking rendezvous would see the tanker overtake the B-52s to bring them into position, whilst an en route rendezvous would have the KC-135 enter a turn to meet the B-52s on their current route. The final join sees the tanker flying a racetrack pattern, and the B-52 receivers manoeuvring to meet the tanker.

Also during the deployment to Fairford, on June 7th one of the B-52s took part in celebrating the 70th anniversary D-Day commemoration in France’s Graignes.

Integration was a common theme among both bomber deployments and Lt. Col. Link explained a bit more about what this entailed from the Stratofortress side:

“What we bring with us – because we are a totally integrated air expeditionary group – is that we bring people from different areas and use them to practice all manner of operational training sorties. Really the main aim was to exercise RAF Fairford as we don’t come here that often as far as the B-52 goes.
We practice with the B-2, we practice with the 100 ARW tankers, Integrate with the 603rd AOC (Air and Space Operations Center) in Ramstein, Germany and whenever possible we talk to our allied nations here in continental Europe to help them understand our capabilities. Basically it’s to get more experience in the European theatre. We very rarely get to operate here (Europe); we spend most of our time out in the Pacific in Guam as we have a continuous bomber presence there”

With the B-2s based alongside the B-52s the two types don’t normally operate side by side so it was interesting to hear whether they did practice together and in what capacity, which Lt. Col. Link went on to explain:

“We get together and we do things like ground training, we give briefs about each other’s capabilities, when we fly we talk to each other over the radio about our tactics and how we would integrate together.”

Crew experience was something that was noteworthy too, the range of crews was from the very young who have just graduated on the aircraft (Lieutenant Ty Watson being one example, a Weapon Systems Officer on the B-52 who, having really shone at Red Flag 14-2 earlier this year and won an award at the exercise, impressed Lt. Col Link with his abilities and was brought along for the exercise) to those who have been with the B-52 fleet for over 20 years!

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 the tensions in the Ukraine and increasing destabilisation in Syria, Iraq 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 it, 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 9th June 2014 through to the 20th June 2014. Below is a list of aircraft that took part in the exercise:

Serial/Code Aircraft Type Squadron
61-0004/LA B-52H 2nd Bomber Wing/96th Bomb Squadron
60-0017/MT B-52H 5th Bomber Wing/69th Bomb Squadron
60-0059/LA B-52H 2nd Bomber Wing/96th Bomb Squadron
82-1069 ‘Spirit of Indiana’ B-2A 393rd Bomb Squadron/509th Bomb Wing
93-1088 ‘Spirit of Louisiana’ B-2A 393rd Bomb Squadron/509th Bomb Wing

For their parts in the production of this article, AeroResource would like to extend their sincere thanks to Captain Carolyn Glover U.S. Air Forces in Europe-United Kingdom at RAF Fairford, Senior Airman Christine Griffiths US Air Force at RAF Mildenhall, the crew of QUID 70 and 100thARW Public Affairs, and also to:

  • Lt Col. Brad Cochran, Squadron Commander of the 393rd Bomb Squadron
  • Flight Lieutenant Ian Hart RAF B-2 Exchange pilot 13th Bomb Squadron
  • Lt. Col. Ryan Link, Squadron Commander of the 96th Bomb Squadron