The Air Force wants to bolster its permanent presence on Guam in an effort to improve its continuous bomber presence mission. Bombers—mostly B-52s from Minot AFB, N.D., and Barksdale AFB, La.—have been rotating to Guam since 2004 as part of USAF’s strategic deterrence mission, serving as a visible reminder to allies, partners, and adversaries that the United States is committed to the region and ready to act on a moment’s notice if the need arises.
“Any time we send out bombers anywhere in the world people pay attention,” Air Force Global Strike Command boss Lt. Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson told reporters in January.
CBP provides “great training for our crews,” he continued. “I haven’t flown a 47-hour mission, I’ve only flown upper-20-hour missions. Those are hard, … so the experiences we gain for those crews are all very beneficial. Not to mention interoperability and the training with partners.”
Depending on how they are loaded, B-52s can fly about 8,000 miles without refueling, offering a persistent, long-range strike capability to the nation. However, being forward deployed to Guam significantly expands sortie time and limits stress on the crews and aircraft, said Lt. Col. Scott Maytan, commander of the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron at Andersen.
From Maytan’s home station at Barksdale, it is a 16-hour sortie to Guam. But once at Andersen, the bombers are just four hours to northeast Asia, five hours to the South China Sea, and about seven hours to Hawaii.
“It’s surprising at home in the [continental United States] how much time we can spend just training with ourselves. We all get in our scheduling ruts. … You get focused on your training proficiencies that you need to get done and all of a sudden you’re doing everything in-house,” said Maytan. “You come up to Guam and for the B-52 it’s exciting because it kind of forces us to do integration,” he said during an Air Force Magazine visit to Andersen this spring.
“Any football team has to be able to win on the road,” Maytan continued. “It’s a different airfield, different dimensions, different parking plans, different weather patterns. … It’s good exposure for my crew.”
It takes a lot of manpower to bring six B-52s—the typical CBP rotation—to Guam, though, and to keep the aircraft operating once in theater. In April there were more than 320 personnel, deployed from Barksdale. Of those, nearly 250 were maintainers.
There are just three people permanently assigned to the expeditionary maintenance squadron at Andersen: a squadron commander, a superintendent, and a “port guy,” said Lt. Col. William Bradley, deputy commander of the 36th Maintenance Group. Their job is primarily to take the rotating aircraft maintenance units under their wing, he said.
No Stone Unturned
When AFGSC broadened its grassroots Force Improvement Program from the ICBM to the bomber community, one of the recommendations that came back was to increase permanent party personnel at Guam to smooth the constant rotations of airmen and iron, said Bradley.
As a result the command sent a three-person Tiger Team to Andersen the first week of November 2014. It was specifically tasked with determining what a detachment could and would look like if established, said Maj. Michelle Willison, the Tiger Team lead.
The team left virtually no stone unturned, taking notes and interviewing just about every airman associated with the mission. The general takeaway was that “if we had a little more continuity, it would make us all a little better,” said Maytan.
Commanders and base leaders interviewed by the team acknowledged that “for many, many years Guam was a sleepy hollow,” but they also said “that’s no longer the case,” said Willison. In addition to smaller monthly exercises, Andersen hosts Cope North each year and Valiant Shield biennially—both exercises that continue to grow.
The two-week joint and multilateral Exercise Cope North 15 was the largest ever, involving some 2,340 participants, including B-52 crews. Along with US airmen, military personnel from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, and South Korea all took part. Singapore and Vietnam sent observers from their air forces. Pilots flew more than 1,450 missions and delivered nearly 100 weapons.
Valiant Shield 2014—a nine-day air, land, and sea exercise—brought together more than 18,000 service members, 200 aircraft, and 19 ships, said Col. Reid M. Langdon, commander of the 36th Operations Group at
“I watched a C-17, Global Hawk, P-3, P-8, and B-52 all take off within a week or two of each other,” Langdon told Air Force Magazine. “Two times a year, this place is just packed.”
However, the increased operational tempo can be taxing on Andersen maintainers, who are supporting CBP as well as all the other aircraft operating from the base. “They are just stretched so thin,” said Willison.
As of early June, the Air Force was still trying to figure out exactly how this new permanent presence would work. Wilson said AFGSC proposed a detachment of 30 to 34 Active Duty personnel who would deploy to Andersen for three years if accompanied by dependents, or two years if not. Lt. Col. Michael Pritchett, who has been tapped to lead the detachment, said Det. 4 would comprise eight officers, including himself, and between 22 and 28 enlisted airmen.
Maintainers will make up “roughly half of the permanently assigned personnel,” said Wilson. Many will be “aircrew ground equipment” airmen, added Pritchett, who currently serves as the deputy chief of the combat operations division at the 608th Air Operations Center at Offutt AFB, Neb.
On the operations side, AFGSC is looking to “include mission planners, combat crew communications, a flight safety officer, a standardization and evaluation officer, and a [survival, evasion, resistance, and escape] specialist,” said Wilson.
Pritchett and the Det. 4 superintendent will deploy to Andersen in September, while the rest of the personnel are slated to begin rolling in between November and December, said officials. “Once all of the personnel are in place, we would declare full operational capability three to four months later,” said Wilson.
But finding the right people is not an easy job. For starters, both resourcing and implementation must cross major commands. Though AFGSC has the lead in the effort, the command is working closely with Pacific Air Forces. Maytan said the crossover is “surmountable,” but it does complicate things.
“It’s not [just] a Global Strike problem. It’s not a PACAF problem,” he said. “They both have similar but different goals at the end of it, so all that needs to be worked through to make sure we do this smartly.”
As of mid-June, a memorandum of understanding between AFGSC and Pacific Air Forces was still awaiting PACAF Commander Gen. Lori J. Robinson’s signature, but officials said they expected the document to be signed “soon.”
“In our construct, the activities and work of the AFGSC detachment would be synchronized and done in close coordination with the 36th Wing at Andersen Air Force Base, with their primary focus being support … for the continuous bomber presence mission,” said Wilson in June. “Administrative-type actions and funding would be accomplished through reachback to AFGSC through 8th Air Force.”
Because Andersen is a joint base, Wilson said there also will need to be “a variety of agreements between Air Force and Navy entities” to support the detachment, though in June it was still too early to know exactly what agreements were necessary.
Brig. Gen. Steven L. Basham, at the time director of strategy, plans, and programs at PACAF headquarters at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, said a permanent CBP on Guam makes sense because there’s a “continual need for individuals doing the same thing” at Andersen, no matter which bomber units go through.
The permanently assigned personnel will not only alleviate some of the stress on airmen at Andersen, but also at the bomb squadrons back in the continental United States. This is because fewer airmen will be required to deploy, “allowing more time between deployments” for some of the career fields, said Wilson.
The bomb wings at Minot and Barksdale take turns rotating to Guam every other year. Although that will not change, the deployment sizes will decrease once the detachment is activated. The exact numbers are still being worked out, but officials said they expect 14 fewer maintainers and about 11 fewer operators to deploy per CBP rotation once the detachment stands up.
“Additionally, the detachment would enable a force improvement quality-of-life initiative for our airmen, by opening an overseas assignment location, which is generally not available for B-52 maintainers,” added Wilson.
Maj. Andrew Marshall, a B-52 radar navigator and Air Force Reservist assigned to the 20th EBS, has deployed to Guam eight times, as both an enlisted airman and an officer. Since his first rotation in 2003, he has had a
front row seat to the evolving mission.
“Obviously when you start something up you are just figuring things out. … We’ve always been capable of performing the mission” from Guam, he said. “Coming out here [provides] more training opportunities. We’re a little closer to our allies. The assurance [and] deterrence—it’s more visible here.”
Maytan said the continuous bomber presence mission makes bomber crews a “sharper team.” With tensions boiling in the South China Sea and Russia flying its own bombers off the coast of Guam, the potential for miscalculations and escalation is a real threat in the region. Andersen’s strategic location and the “messaging piece” of the CBP mission means deployed bombers have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, so “at least some subset” of the deployed B-52 fleet is kept in a slightly different state of readiness on Guam than they are back home, he stated.
For example, the amount of fuel in a parked bomber might be different on Guam than at Barksdale and the aircraft might have different weapons racks loaded while deployed, said Maytan. “Nothing amazing or super secret. We’re just two or three steps [closer] to being ready for an operational mission,” he explained. Those may be “steps we would keep off the list at home because it’s more focused on the local flying training.”
Guam is a small island surrounded by a massive body of water, so the training environment “is a little less forgiving.It raises our game and our discipline,” said Maytan.
A typical mission from Barksdale might include a four- or five-hour flight to a training range in Texas, followed by a short hop to Oklahoma where a bomber would refuel before heading back to Louisiana. The difference is at home there are plenty of bases where a B-52 can land if anything were to go wrong during the mission. That’s not the case in the Pacific.
“If I want to fly four to five hours in the South China Sea, I’m going to fly four to five hours back. It’s all water; there’s not a lot of places to land,” Maytan pointed out.
In November 2013, shortly after China declared an air defense identification zone over a large swath of the East China Sea, the United States sent two unarmed B-52s from Andersen through China’s ADIZ. A Pentagon spokesman at the time described the sorties as “uneventful,” saying they were part of previously scheduled training, but the mission sent a powerful message.
Air Force officials said the creation of the ADIZ did not alter CBP operations in any way. Bomber crews continue to file an international flight plan and fly through the area even today.
“It’s public domain. There are clear-cut laws as far as what constitutes national air space. … We’re not violating any rules. We go out and do our thing just like we’ve always done it,” said Marshall.
“We’re here to assure our allies, that it’s business as usual. … You kind of want to be a role model [for America’s allies]. That’s the way I look at it,” Marshall said.
Training with allies and partners is a big part of the CBP, and Australia is playing a growing role in that mission.
In December 2014, a B-52 redeployed from Andersen to RAAF Darwin, Australia, for a joint training exercise with the Royal Australian Air Force. While there, the B-52 simulated strike missions over the nearby Delamere Training Range in Australia’s Northern Territory and practiced intercepts with Australian F-18 fighters from neighboring RAAF Tindal, according to a PACAF release. It noted that the purpose of the event was “to highlight the intent for increased US Air Force training with the RAAF.” The exercise marked the fourth time a US bomber landed at Darwin since 2012.
This year, two B-52Hs flew from Andersen to Australia to participate in the Avalon Air Show. Officials declined to talk about future operations, but all said it’s safe to assume that B-52s will continue to operate out of Australia.
“There are only so many places that are well-suited to land a B-52 because of our size and the dimensions,” noted Maytan. Around the Pacific, Hawaii, Alaska, and Darwin, Australia, are among those locations.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey McDaniels, director of air and cyberspace operations at PACAF headquarters, said bombers are often viewed as “one-dimensional,” and though they “are very good at going to blow things up” in the Middle East and South Asia, in the Pacific region they haven’t actually dropped a bomb, other than for training, since Vietnam.
In the Pacific bombers are used mostly for deterrence, helping to maintain peace and stability in the region, he said. Through the CBP mission, the B-52s also are used for nation-to-nation engagements, one of PACAF’s top priorities.
“We have five allies out here and lots of partners. Our goal would be to get along with everybody, they get along with us, and they get along with each other,” said McDaniels. “We can use CBP for that on a peaceful positive approach that keeps us away from the bad things bombers have to do.”
He said that in addition to the Avalon Air Show, B-52s attended an air show in Malaysia, and also in April, a B-52 operating from Andersen flew around Japan, allowing the Japanese “to do intercepts on us for their proficiency” purposes.
Although B-52s are most often associated with the Air Force’s continuous bomber presence mission, there have been limited B-1 and B-2 deployments to Andersen over the last 11 years. In 2013, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said, “Our ability to strengthen the ongoing continuous bomber presence missions in the region will … benefit from [a] reduced presence in Afghanistan,” stating that “more B-1 [bombers] will become available” to augment the B-52s.
Three B-2s and some 200 airmen from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Mo., deployed to Andersen in 2014 as part of the CBP rotation. Prior to that, however, the last extended B-2 deployment to Guam took place in 2012.
Langdon said having multiple bomber variants operate out of Andersen sends a “different strategic deterrent message” and shows the US is “fully committed.” Both he and Basham said they think the B-1 and/or B-2 could play a larger role in CBP one day, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon considering the current air campaign against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
Wilson said AFGSC has no plans to integrate the B-1 into CBP even after the bombers transition from Air Combat Command to Global Strike this fall. Though he said, “there are synergies to be gained” by the move, there won’t be any impact on the continuous bomber presence mission. There also are “no plans to include B-2s into the CBP rotation at Guam,” though Wilson remarked that “B-2s do regularly support [US Pacific Command] exercises in the AOR.”
Marshall said that bomber diplomacy—a term often associated with CBP—has been a big part of the Air Force’s mission since its inception, and that probably won’t change anytime soon.
“Think about it. When you say, ‘I can be anywhere in the world and I can hold anybody at bay, that I represent … America, and we’re here for our friends—we’ve done that since World War I and we’ll continue to do that.”