Today, some three years after the Air Force began revitalizing its nuclear enterprise, the nation’s dual-mission bombers are prepared and ready to take on the full range of conventional and nuclear missions, should they be necessary.
If unleashed, Air Force Global Strike Command’s stealthy B-2s and versatile B-52s could strike with extreme power, precision, and lethality against any foe on the globe, at any time, with conventional bombs or nuclear munitions.
Airmen ready a B-52 to taxi before a mission from Minot AFB, N.D. There are 76 of the venerable bombers in the USAF fleet.(USAF photo by SrA. Jeremy Burns)
Take last March’s B-2 strike in Libya, for example. The 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Mo., which oversees the B-2 fleet, was still undergoing a nuclear inspection by Global Strike Command—and facing all of the demands that come with it—when the call came for action.
On short notice, the wing swung into conventional mode. Three of its stealth bombers left Whiteman to strike nearly 50 targets at an airfield in Ghardabiya, Libya, seven time zones away. The aircraft delivered their conventional weapons loads with great accuracy, hitting hardened aircraft shelters, MiG combat aircraft, and military helicopters parked on the ground, kick-starting NATO’s seven-month air operation against then-dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.
Maintaining such perpetual dual readiness is not easy, say the airmen who support and operate the bomber force. USAF’s 76 B-52H bombers—a force already 50 years old—represent a small-size fleet by the aircraft type’s historical standards. The airframes are structurally sound, but face vexing issues such as corrosion. Further, the Air Force is still building its cadre of seasoned maintainers to tend to the demands of a new operational squadron—the fourth B-52 combat-coded squadron in the fleet overall—that USAF has established at Minot AFB, N.D.
The Air Force’s 20 B-2s, the first of which entered service in 1993, comprise a tiny inventory by just about anyone’s standard. That fleet size makes aircraft availability all the more important since even one aircraft down represents a five percent reduction in the total fleet’s capacity. Currently, supply issues hamper B-2 availability, placing stress on flying schedules to maintain pilot proficiency.
Yet, this force of less than 100 bombers continues to impress the airmen who oversee it. “This jet,” the B-2, “can be a very complicated and finicky mistress on the best of days,” said Col. Matthew Kmon, commander of the 509th Maintenance Group, in an interview at Whiteman. “As much as I hate her at times, what she brings to the fight is phenomenal.”
That same respect applies to the B-52. “It is a workhorse. You can put just about anything on a B-52,” said Col. James C. Dawkins Jr., 5th Bomb Wing commander, in an interview at Minot.
“The B-52 has an awesome strategic nuclear deterrent capability,” added Col. Troy A. VanBemmelen, who heads Minot’s 5th Operations Group.
But it’s not just the machines. The airmen are the lifeblood of the dual-role bombers’ operations. On a daily basis, they get the job done in providing the nation both a nuclear deterrent as well as conventional options to combatant commanders around the world, including a continual presence on Guam through periodic rotations of expeditionary squadrons.
They overcome factors such as extremes of weather, mechanical issues with their platforms, and a demanding and unforgiving inspection regime.
A B-2 returns to Whiteman AFB, Mo., after a mission. The inventory of 20 B-2 bombers is small by anyone’s standards.(USAF photo by SrA. Kenny Holston)
“Despite all of those things, they have shown remarkable resilience,” said Brig. Gen. Scott A. Vander Hamm, 509th BW commander, of his airmen. “I am really proud of their performance under significant stress, both in the nuclear [area], where perfection is the standard, and in conventional ops, where we are putting airframes and aircrews into harm’s way.”
Dawkins praised his airmen’s “ability to get the job done no matter what the conditions—whether that is a typical Minot winter or a natural disaster” such as the devastating flooding of the Souris River in North Dakota in summer 2011. That flood displaced hundreds of Minot airmen and their families from off-base homes, with full recovery not expected for several years.
Yet, the 5th BW suffered only “minimal” impact to its operations, said Dawkins. “We were at all times able to execute. In other words if the President called, we were able to generate the combat power necessary. That was never in doubt.”
What is still up in the air is what this bomber force will look like by the end of the decade. It’s going to become smaller as the United States reconfigures its nuclear force posture to meet its commitments under the New START agreement with Russia.
As part of these changes, the nation will significantly draw down the number of B-52s capable of both nuclear and conventional missions. The exact details, including the makeup of the two B-52 wings after the reductions, were still unclear as of late 2011.
Beyond a Global Deterrence Force
Dual-role bomber operations have evolved as USAF passed through the initial stage of reinvigorating its nuclear operations to the point of reaching today’s steady state.
Gone is the construct called Global Deterrence Force that the Air Force leadership created at the start of the nuclear reinvigoration. GDF imposed a more rigid schedule for when each of the two B-52 wings—Minot’s 5th BW and the 2nd BW at Barksdale AFB, La.—would concentrate on nuclear training and when each would focus on the conventional side.
“It was a pretty solid piece of thinking when it first set out and when the nuclear bomber force at that time was part of Air Combat Command,” explained Col. Robert F. Gass, 8th Air Force vice commander. The numbered air force, which oversees the nuclear-capable bombers, is headquartered at Barksdale. He added, “I think it was an effort to provide rhythm for a real focus on nuclear operations.”
Not as much changed at the time for the 509th BW, as the B-2s continued to have concurrent conventional and nuclear taskings due to that fleet’s limited size.
Over time, however, the B-52 wings found the GDF construct to be too constraining and realized that they possessed the flexibility to train and prepare for both missions without losing any focus on their nuclear deterrent responsibilities.
SSgt. Dustin Hyden (l) and SSgt. Doyle Atkinson load Mk 62 naval mines onto a B-52 in preparation for a joint exercise with the Navy. The nuclear-capable aircraft is remarkably versatile.(USAF photo by SSgt. Jamie Powell)
“We realized we can do more stuff. We can do both missions. We can do the nuclear mission; we can do the conventional missions,” said VanBemmelen. “We didn’t realize that at the very beginning, but as we developed from that GDF construct to where we are today, we do realize that.”
Additional factors made the move away from GDF possible. The USAF leadership created Global Strike Command to provide focus on the service’s nuclear enterprise. Eighth Air Force shed its nonbomber assets to concentrate on the dual-role bombers. Further, a rigorous inspection regime emerged to ensure that the nuclear deterrence mission remained top priority throughout the dual-role bombers wings and the Air Force’s ICBM forces.
Around the same time, combatant commanders expressed a growing desire for the bombers for use in conventional missions, and the fourth B-52 operational squadron, Minot’s 69th Bomb Squadron, came into being.
“The determination was made that it may even be more difficult to try to do this GDF piece, more difficult than it is to try to do both missions any time, any place,” said Dawkins.
As a result, bomber operations “have successfully evolved from that initial position in the Global Deterrence Force into a more flexible and sustainable construct that we are working with today,” said Gass. “I think we have a good plan, a good set of oversight, and great performance from the wings that allow us the confidence, backed up by a top inspection regime, that we are able to perform both missions to a no-fail standard.”
At any given time, Whiteman has about 15 of the 20 B-2s in the fleet on hand. Three B-2s are usually cycling through depot, plus one aircraft is stationed at Edwards AFB, Calif., for testing.
Right now, there is a fourth B-2 in depot, an aircraft seriously damaged in an engine fire on Guam in February 2010. Vander Hamm, the 509th BW commander, said he does not expect that aircraft back until 2013.
US Strategic Command’s recent Global Thunder nuclear deterrence exercise spotlighted the B-2’s fleet capability, according to wing officials. During the October drill, “a fair number” of B-2s—they wouldn’t be more specific, but suffice to say a large number by B-2 standards—took off from the base in a drill that followed the same procedures as an actual nuclear mission.
“This was the single-best generation that I have seen in my Air Force career,” said Kmon, who oversees the B-2 maintenance group. “We blew this one out of the water.”
Airmen and Navy Seabees make progress on renovating a medical clinic in Ha Tinh province, Vietnam. The US service members worked alongside Vietnamese soldiers and civilians during the humanitarian mission.(USAF photo by MSgt. John Herrick)
He said his maintainers had the B-2s “cocked on,” meaning loaded with weapons and ready to go, in less than half the allotted time. “I couldn’t have been prouder of my guys and the capability of the jet,” he said.
Despite the wing coming together for such impressive displays, aircraft availability remains the wing’s Achilles’ heel, said Kmon. This is exacerbated by the transition from contractor logistics support to a government-run supply chain.
The B-2’s current supply system “is not responsive enough,” he said. “The vendors are not customer-service-oriented enough, and the models that we use to predict what we are going to need are outdated.” The situation is not getting better, he noted.
When an aircraft goes down for lack of spare parts, “I am, no kidding, losing combat capability, but more importantly, right now in a peacetime environment at Whiteman, I am losing that ability to train aviators,” said Kmon.
“When you miss a flight, … that rolls the entire schedule” for aircrew training, noted Lt. Col. Eric R. Lapine, director of operations for Whiteman’s 13th Bomb Squadron.
The Air Force has set a mission-capable-rate standard of 57.9 percent for the B-2 fleet, meaning at any time, seven or eight of Whiteman’s stealth bombers should be ready and available for operations. Meeting that target is difficult.
Vander Hamm said there is “a lot of heat and light” on that issue right now at the general officer level to yield improvements. “That resource-requirements mismatch … is real frustrating to my maintenance and my ops,” he said.
To mitigate the impact, the wing has revamped its flying-hour program, said Vander Hamm. Instead of trying to launch four “front line” aircraft a day, with one spare aircraft, the wing now targets three with two spares. “That is actually the same number of aircraft, but it gives us more stability in the schedule,” he said.
Vander Hamm said the B-2 continues to be an extremely high-demand asset. Day-to-day requirements from the combatant commanders “far outstretch my capability to meet all of those requirements,” he said. In fact, the combatant commanders have some 44 to 48 aircraft worth of requirements, exceeding his available B-2s by roughly four times, he said.
Venerable as Always
A B-52 takes off from Minot Air Force Base. The 50-year-old bombers are rugged and dependable, but face some vexing supply chain and corrosion issues.(USAF photo by SSgt. Jennifer L. Flores)
The B-52 force is based at Minot and Barksdale Air Force Bases. The Air Force established the 69th BS at Minot in September 2009. It became capable of full operations last May, and its members already have one conventional deployment to Guam under their belt.
Minot has 28 B-52s. Both the 23rd BS and 69th BS have 11 primary aircraft and two backups. There is also one B-52 that the wing uses as a ground trainer and one aircraft in attrition reserve. Barksdale has similar numbers.
“We are getting used to having two squadrons here on base,” said Dawkins, the 5th BW commander. “I am very optimistic about what the future holds for the B-52 force at Barksdale and up here. … Every day we get better.”
The wing is building up its maintenance force to handle the extra aircraft that the standup of the 69th BS brought. The base still needs additional infrastructure, too, to carry out its maintenance tasks effectively.
“We are making do with what we have,” said Lt. Col. Patrick S. Ballard, deputy commander of the 5th Maintenance Group. “One of the leadership challenges here is to keep our airmen motivated while we are working through these infrastructure issues.”
The B-52 is a “very tough, very durable” platform, said CMSgt. Douglas W. Brackett, superintendent of the 5th Maintenance Squadron. Dealing with fuselage corrosion, in areas such as longerons, demands attention, he said. The B-52H fleet probably averages about 20,000 flight hours per airframe.
“It’s a badge of honor, really, to be able to maintain and keep a 50-year-old combat aircraft relevant,” said Ballard.
Minot’s B-52s currently are mission capable at a rate that hovers around the Air Force’s 74 percent standard. Traditionally the 5th BW’s MC rate has been higher, “but with growth comes pain,” said Brackett, referencing the wing’s expansion.
Fostering a cadre of experienced B-52 crew chiefs—giving these maintainers time to develop, while minimizing the impact on unit readiness—is one area of special emphasis for the wing.
SSgt. Jon Almestica watches a B-52 being carefully lifted off the ground at Minot. The aircraft’s struts and seals were replaced during routine maintenance.(USAF photo by SSgt. Jennifer L. Flores)
“We received the aircraft and the pilots before we received the maintainers,” said Brackett of the establishment of the 69th BS. “We are still playing catch-up. But we are healthy now compared to where we have been.”
He said since “there is nowhere to draw B-52 personnel from,” the wing has been taking on crew chief transfers from the mobility and fighter force.
The wing has changed its approach when it sends bombers out to Guam on conventional rotations by purposely sending its younger maintainers to give them that training opportunity and experience, said Brackett.
The Air Force is also considering a plan to lock airmen in the crew chief career field in the B-52 until they reach the rank of technical sergeant, usually about a 12-year process, in order to bolster those ranks and experience level.
“We will have experienced people who have dealt with nuclear weapons for a long period of time,” said Brackett. “That is probably the biggest thing that is going to help us.”
Continuous Bomber Presence
The Air Force has maintained a continuous bomber presence, or CBP, at Andersen AFB, Guam, since 2004 to provide stability in the Pacific region. The bombers have added to the quiver of conventional options available to the US Pacific Command commander to dissuade would-be aggressors.
Originally, the B-1B, B-2, and B-52 wings took turns deploying expeditionary squadrons of several aircraft and an airmen contingent to the strategic air hub for stints of several months at a time.
While there, the bombers fly long-duration sorties over the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, have access to training ranges in places like Australia and off of Hawaii, and train with sister services and allies.
“We get some great training when we go out there,” said Dawkins.
Those deployments also get aircrews “familiar with the area where they potentially could be deploying and operating” in real-world situations, said Lapine, who oversees operations of Whiteman’s 13th BS. Airmen coming out of those rotations form “an extremely tight-knit” unit “ready for combat,” he said.
B-1s have been out of the rotation for several years since they have constantly been rotating to Southwest Asia to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
That left the B-2s and B-52s. For a while, B-2s deployed to Guam every third rotation under CBP, but more recently, the B-52s have carried the load.
More changes are coming. The CBP rotations will now occur every six months and each B-52 wing will be responsible for them for one year at a time, meaning it will dispatch two expeditionary squadrons over that span, said 8th Air Force’s Gass.
“We are in the process now of going through a transition phase to align,” he said. “[In] April, we will be on a yearly rotational basis.”
Minot’s 23rd BS sent an expeditionary contingent of airmen and B-52s to Guam in December, relieving the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron from Barksdale. It will remain there until April when the six-month rotations will start, said Dawkins.
As for the B-2’s future role in CBP, it “will continue to be a player in the deployments … but on a more episodic basis,” said Gass.
“We will probably be used more sparingly and in times when we want to do high strategic signaling. When we send a B-2, it might be to support some other theaterwide objective,” said Vander Hamm of the 509th BW.
A B-2 flies to the Utah Test Range. At any given time, Whiteman AFB, Mo., has about 15 bombers in the fleet on hand.(Photo by Bobbi Garcia)
Beyond the rotations, the training that the expeditionary bomber units undertake on the island has morphed to include more nuclear-applicable drills, although the preponderance of activity is still on the conventional side.
“While they are on the island, … they also pursue a baseline of nuclear training which provides them the ability to redeploy back from Guam to garrison and requires a minimum amount of spin-up and training to reassume their nuclear duties,” said Gass.
“We see that we can do those items even while deployed and not impact the conventional tasking that we were sent out there to do,” said VanBemmelen. “We are evolving as we go.”
Smaller, but More Important
More changes lie ahead for the nuclear-capable bomber force. It’s going to become much smaller.
By February 2018, the United States must convert at least 36 of its 76 B-52s to conventional-only roles to conform to the Obama Administration’s posture for US strategic nuclear forces and meet the caps on launchers (i.e., heavy bombers and long-range ballistic missiles) imposed by the New START agreement with Russia.
That means a reduction of more than one-third of the dual-role bomber force, which likely will touch both B-52 wings, based on what Air Force officials have said publicly.
Senior Air Force officials have maintained that the bomber leg of the US triad will remain just as important, if not more so, to national security at those lower numbers. In fact, the bombers may play a larger role in extending the nation’s protective nuclear umbrella to US friends and allies as the nuclear arsenal shrinks, they say.
“We see the bomber as important not just to central deterrence but, even more important, to extending and projecting power, both conventional and nuclear,” said Maj. Gen. William A. Chambers, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, during a speech on Capitol Hill in late October.
“As we move to meet the new numbers, not only of weapons, but of delivery vehicles, your nuclear deterrent still underpins everything we do on a national security stage,” said Vander Hamm. “Our conventional forces would be nothing if we didn’t have the backup of the big club of the nuclear deterrent.”
The bombers, he said, bring unique attributes to the nuclear deterrent, including the ability to signal intent to would-be foes. “Generations do mean something,” he said. “No other part of the triad gives you that capability to signal and to recall should you need to.”