B-52s Return to the Middle East as Afghanistan Withdrawal Begins

Two B-52s arrived in the Middle East on April 23, boosting available airpower to protect U.S. and coalition troops as they prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III approved deploying the bombers and extending the aircraft carrier Eisenhower and its battle group, which will remain on station in range to conduct airstrikes in Afghanistan if needed. The bombers are from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and the first two touched down at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, the evening of April 23.

“We want to make this a safe, orderly, and deliberate drawdown,” Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said in a briefing. “We’ve made it clear that force protection is going to be a priority as we begin to move all our military personnel out of Afghanistan, and that means giving the commander on the ground … options to make sure that our forces and those of our allies are protected as they move out of the country. And things like bombers provide you options.”

President Joe Biden on April 14 announced the full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, to be completed by Sept. 11, 2021. Pentagon officials have said there would likely be an increase in forces sent to the region to allow for a safe removal of troops, and to oversee the logistics of getting personnel and materiel out of the country.

“Options are important in a mission like this,” Kirby said. “It’s entirely possible that there will be a temporary increase of some ground forces and enablers, not just for force protection but also logistical and engineering support that will have to go into Afghanistan to help us make sure this drawdown gets done on the timeline and in a safe, orderly way.”

The deployment marks the first time bombers will be operate from Al Udeid Air Base since B-52s from the 20th Bomb Squadron deployed to the region in January 2020. They soon moved to Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia instead of Al Udeid because of the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. The bombers were still assigned to Al Udeid’s 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, but flew from Diego Garcia to Afghanistan and other locations in the region for about two months, completing more than 90 sorties and totaling 1,300 combat hours.

Bombers have not touched down in the region since then, but multiple “bomber task force” flights, long-duriation flights of B-52s, have flown through CENTCOM airspace.