AFGSC Tri-Bomber Deployment 2017
RAF Fairford, UK
For what has become a recent annual occurrence, June 2017 saw RAF Fairford increased from its state of readiness to fully operational as it become the Forward Operating Base (FOB) for a number of US Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) strategic bombers. Aviation in Action travelled to RAF Fairford at various stages to cover the deployment.
Prior to any of the bombers arriving, support aircraft brought in circa 800 airmen and a multitude of equipment in preparation to host the aircraft for the upcoming exercises. With this all in place, RAF Fairford became a hive of activity on Thursday June 1 as the first arrivals for the deployment touched down; a pair of B-52H Stratofortresses of the 2nd Bomb Wing (BW) at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Friday June 2 welcomed the third and final B-52 again from the 2nd BW at Barksdale, with one hailing from the 20th Bomb Squadron (BS), one from the 96th BS and the final Buff being the 2nd BW Commander’s aircraft. Wednesday June 7 saw further arrivals in the form of two B-1B Lancers from the 34th BS/28th BW at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. Much like the B-52 arrivals, a day later on Thursday June 8 a third B-1B from the 34th BS arrived to join the deployment. The latest arrivals took the tally to six bombers on the ground at Fairford; all of which took residence at the 09 end of the airfield on the Western loop. The unprecedented size of this deployment had us witnessing a number of bombers which hadn’t been seen since the late 90’s during Operation Allied Force. That however didn’t mark the end of aircraft arrivals, and thus completing the compliment of AFGSC bombers were a pair of B-2A Spirits from the 13th BS/509th BW at Whiteman AFB, Missouri landing on Friday June 9. Having an example of each bomber on the ground at Fairford marked a little bit of history being the first time in European theatre all three had been stationed together at the same airfield. This bomber deployment was undertaken to enhance the readiness and training necessary to respond to any contingency or challenge across the globe, a moment Col. Jared Kennish, was keen to emphasise highlighting:
|''The bomber assurance and deterrence missions these three aircraft are supporting are key to reinforcing the USAF’s commitment to its allies in NATO - in a very visible, very tangible way''.
Col. Jared Kennish, 322nd Air Expeditionary Group Commander
B-52’s on Exercise
Whilst deployed to RAF Fairford, the B-52’s participated in three different exercises from the moment they arrived to the eventual date they departed for home. The first exercise was a sole mission during Arctic Challenge (ACE) situated up in Scandinavia led by the Finnish Air Force; this occurred on the outbound leg from Barksdale AFB to the area of operations, then upon completion recovering to Fairford. As Lt. Gen. Richard Clark confirmed during the organised media day:
''One aircraft participated during the deployment out, so we didn’t actually position aircraft in the Arctic for this one''.
The other two B-52’s flew direct to the Cotswolds, albeit one came from Al Udied, Qatar and the other straight from Barksdale. The ACE mission tied in with the exercise aims which gave the opportunity for NATO allies and USAF aircraft to operate in Cross Boarder Training (CBT) in Northern parts of Scandinavia where civilian air traffic is minimal, the only area within Europe where this type of training is possible so effectively. This type of scenario provides the platform for a large scale multinational exercise with up to 90 aircraft in each mission wave. The B-52 would have shared airspace with Norwegian F-16’s/DA-20 Falcons and a C-130 Hercules, Royal Air Force Tornado GR.4’s and an A-330 Voyager, Belgian Air Force F-16’s, Swedish Air Force JAS-39 Gripen’s and a C-130 Hercules, Swiss Air Force F-18’s, US Air Force F-15’s and KC-135 Stratotankers, Finnish Air Force F-18’s/ CASA CN-295’s and PC-12’s, Finnish Army NH-90’s, French Air Force Mirage 2000’s and Rafales, a Canadian Air Force C-130 Hercules, a German Air Force A-310MRTT and a Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC-10.
The 45th edition of Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) began on Thursday June 1 as the maritime fleet set sail from Szczecin, Poland into the Baltic Sea continuing toward Kiel, Germany where the exercise would conclude on Friday June 16. The exercise is a maritime based operation supported by air, sea and ground assets from 14 NATO Allies and Partner Nations designed to demonstrate resolve among forces to ensure stability in, and if necessary defend, the Baltic Sea region. For 2017, 14 countries participated including; Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the United Kingdom, Sweden and of course the United States. These nations committed circa 50 warships and submarines, 4,000 shipboard personnel and upwards of 50 aircraft which of course included the B-52H Stratofortress. Flying for the exercise begun at Fairford from Monday June 5 and continued daily through to Thursday June 15 which would see the B-52’s departing early in the morning, heading up to the Baltic Sea to undertake various sorties such as maritime interdiction, anti-submarine, anti-surface, amphibious and air defence operations. During the 8-10 hour missions, it was confirmed by Maj. Sarah Fortin, Assistant Director of Operations 20th BS and B-52H Instructor Pilot, that a number of inert (non-explosive) ordinance had been dropped at sea for BALTOPS which compromised mainly of MK.62 Quick Strike Mines. The missions would see the laying of mines giving NATO Forces a 24 hour recovery period from dropping, once recovered the inert mines could be used again for future exercises.
Running in tandem with BALTOPS was Saber Strike, the US Army Europe led land based exercise over North Eastern Europe. Saber Strike was the third exercise B-52’s were able to play a role in whilst working the European Command (EUCOM). Whilst BALTOPS was the main focus of their deployment, the mighty B-52 did occasionally head across to Estonian airspace to work with Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC’s) to assist in Saber Strike. These missions would see dropping of further non-explosive ordinance in the form of 500lb Mk.82 BDU-50 dumb bombs, which have a spotting charge releasing a cloud of smoke upon impact. U.S. Air Force Capt. Fleming Thompson went on to say:
''We’ll be working with BDU-50 inert munitions, concrete bombs which are general purpose unguided conventional weapons during this exercise, we’ll fly them over to Tapa, Estonia and work with NATO JTAC’s and employ those in a joint environment''.
B-1B operations kicked off at RAF Fairford on Thursday June 8 shortly after 7am, the day following their arrival to the Cotswolds. Upon launching the aircraft transited across to Latvia to take part in a Saber Strike mission during a phase of the combined arms live-fire exercise on a range at Adazi Military Base. The purpose of this sortie was to provide Close Air Support (CAS) to units on the ground, to be ready when called upon providing aerial support. Friday June 9 saw a pair of B-1B’s depart for the same operating area to complete the combined arms live-fire exercise, where across both days the B-1’s were working with Idaho and Michigan Air National Guard JTAC’s. The exercise was a demonstration of coordination between nations and the heavy impact of combined capabilities, highlighting the inherent flexibility of ground and air forces to rapidly respond to crises allowing for the right presence where and when it was needed. In the same way that the B-52’s were working BALTOPS as their primary objective and running the odd sortie on Sabre Strike, the B-1B operated the opposite way whereby Saber Strike was their primary mission including similarly sporadic sorties on BALTOPS.
Throughout the operating period B-1B’s were loaded with BDU-50 inert munitions where it was estimated a combined 40 examples were dropped during the exercise. On each sortie a crew of four would man the B-1, as Capt. Frank Mercurio explained:
|''The crew of the jet is going to be two pilots, usually the aircraft commander and his co-pilot. Then we have two WSO’s who sit behind, one is an offensive systems operator who handles all the navigation, weapons employment and targeting, then we have the defensive systems operator who handles the defence of the aircraft''.
Capt. Frank Mercurio, 34th BS Weapons Systems Officer (WSO)
The main weapon of attack used on every single sortie was the Sniper targeting pod which was obviously utilised for distinguishing targets, but also as a terrain following feature to help in navigation. Capt. Travis Adams, 34th BS pilot detailed that most of the Saber Strike mission durations were lasting between 10-12 hours in a bid to give NATO allies a real confidence in their ability, but also to be able to employ the roles the B-1 is capable of such as strategic attack and offensive counter air type missions. The B-1’s were operating as a multi role platform between both exercises whilst on station, again as Capt. Travis Adams revealed they were undertaking maritime reconnaissance, maritime interdiction and mine laying for BALTOPS, but flitting between both exercises perhaps going from surface attack, to maritime interdiction and back to CAS duties highlighting the great capabilities of the aircraft.
Spirits Show of Force
While not here to participate in any of the exercises, the B-2’s arrived alongside the other AFGSC assets demonstrating the flexible global-strike capability whilst supporting the recurring bomber assurance and deterrence operations. Taking residence in the purpose built two-bay hangar at the 27 end of the airfield, the B-2’s spent most of their time consigned within them. Their presence certainly came as more of a statement to NATO allies and other nations watching from a distance as Chargé d’Affaires Lewis Lukens commented:
|''This deployment of strategic bombers to the United Kingdom, is a clear demonstration of enduring commitment to our NATO allies and to deter further aggression in the region''.
Chargé d’Affaires Lewis Lukens, U.S. Embassy in London
Upon arriving into UK airspace on Friday June 9, the B-2’s routed over the RAF Holbeach weapons range at which they dropped six inert bombs a piece before recovering to RAF Fairford. The only other mission flown whilst in the UK was a 13 hour sortie on Tuesday June 13 departing at 16:30pm out over the Atlantic Ocean by the Spirit of Missouri; it is unknown exactly what this mission entailed, but the aircraft returned to Fairford at 05:15am the following morning. The overriding message gained from the presence of the B-2’s was forming a part of the United States’ commitment to supporting global security, whilst providing the opportunity for bomber crews to maintain a high state of readiness.
Detached with the squadron for this deployment was a Foreign Exchange Officer from the Royal Air Force, Sqn. Ldr. Wesley Pead who is currently the Assistant Director of Operations for the 13th BS at Whiteman AFB. Formerly a Tornado GR.4 pilot in the RAF, Wes Pead took up his exchange posting to Whiteman AFB in 2014 where he became the 595th pilot qualified to fly the B-2 and the only pilot at that time who was not a US Airman. Accruing over 300 hours on the aircraft, his time as a pilot drew to a close in May this year when he took up his current posting as Assistant Director of Operations for the 13th BS. Having gained invaluable experience on such a unique aircraft, the future for Wes holds a role in the RAF as a trials director for the F-35B at the Air Warfare Centre whilst the RAF builds up the type’s capabilities.
A single B-2 and B-52 returned home to their respective bases on Thursday June 15, followed by the remaining two B-52’s the next day. The second B-2 and all three B-1’s left RAF Fairford on Tuesday June 20. A fourth B-1B made an un-related appearance during the deployment; one which had been stuck at Ramstein AFB in Germany for over a month having diverted with technical difficulties. It made an attempt to get home on Monday June 12 but developed a problem mid-flight causing a divert to RAF Fairford. Those issues were resolved allowing the aircraft to finally get away and return home on Saturday June 17.
Aviation in Action would like to extend our thanks to the following for their assistance in making this article possible:
Credits: Article and photography by Aaron Paxton