A USAF B-1B Lancer bomber and F-15E Strike Eagles fly in formation during Joint Air Defense Exercise 19-01, on Feb. 19, 2019. Air Force photo by SSgt. Clayton Cupit.
B-1s from Dyess AFB, Texas, recently returned home, leaving the Middle East without a USAF bomber presence—a rare occasion after 18 years of war.
About 350 airmen and the aircraft returned home on March 11, about two weeks before US-backed fighters declared victory over ISIS’s physical caliphate, according to photographs published by Dyess. Although air operations are continuing in the region, no bombers have replaced them.
Coalition airstrikes supported Iraqi Security Forces operations against ISIS in northern and western Iraq from March 25 to March 27, according to US Central Command.
“We rotate capabilities in and out of the AOR based on current operational requirements,” Air Forces Central Command said in a statement. “Our combat capability and commitment to partners and allies in the region remains.”
The Lancers were the last USAF bombers deployed to Al Udeid AB, Qatar, where they flew constant combat operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, as well as “over the horizon” flights to bomb Taliban and other targets in Afghanistan. During the last deployment, the B-1s flew 390 sorties, totaling 4,471 hours, and conducted 920 airstrikes, according to Dyess.
The B-1s, which had flown continuous combat operations in the US Central Command area of operations since 2001, were last pulled from theater in 2016 to undergo the Integrated Battle Station upgrade, which modernized the aircraft’s avionics and data links, along with adding a self-diagnostic test system. B-52s assumed the bomber role from 2016 to 2018 when the Lancers returned to Al Udeid.
In August 2016, USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said the Air Force would regularly rotate its bombers through CENTCOM for combat operations, saying at the time the plan “is to continue having a bomber presence, and it will be a combination of a B-1 and B-52 rotation.”
The pause in the rotation of bombers comes weeks after the service announced it had pulled F-22s from Middle East combat rotations, deploying F-15Cs from RAF Lakenheath, England, to fly air superiority missions in the region instead.
While there are no bombers deployed to CENTCOM, B-52s are operating in both the Pacific and in Europe. B-52s from Minot AFB, N.D., have deployed to Andersen AFB, Guam, for the Air Force’s Continuous Bomber Presence mission in the Pacific, while Stratofortresses from Barksdale AFB, La., are flying exercises across Europe from a forward operating base at RAF Fairford, England.