NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE
SHOW OF STRENGTH FROM GLOBAL STRIKE COMMAND
Though denied as such the United States Air Force (USAF) Global Strike Command sent a strong message to President Putin and Russia with a deployment of heavy bombers to Royal Air Force (RAF) Fairford in Gloucestershire, in the heart of the Cotswolds in Southern England.
With the continuing escalation of troubles in Ukraine you could be forgiven the deployment of three Boeing B-52H Stratofortress’s and two Grumman-Northrop B-2A Spirit’s was an answer to Russian posturing towards the United States and her North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies.
The official line from the USAF states the B-52’s and B-2’s deployment was a planned operation to take part in the exercise ‘Saber Strike’ and to ‘conduct training flights in the US European Command area of operations, providing aircrews to sharpen skills in key operational sets and become familiar with airbases and operations in the region’.
I visited RAF Fairford, a base maintained by the USAF in support of contingency operations with a 10,000 Ft runway, to interview crews from both aircraft. Of interest to British journalists was the appearance of RAF exchange pilot, Flight Lieutenant Ian Hart . Flt Lt Hart is two and a half years into a three year exchange with the 13th Bomb Squadron and he explained what life was like as a foreigner flying the United States most expensive asset, the Grumman-Northrop B-2A Spirit, known as the Stealth Bomber. As he explained, ‘The US training system and way of maintaining combat readiness is different to ours. The way rules are written on how pilots must land, perform air refuels, and other various tasks to maintain mission readiness are different’ Flt Lt Hart is the fourth RAF pilot to fly the B-2A, a unique opportunity only given to the Royal Air Force, proving the ‘special relationship’ Great Britain enjoys with its American cousins is still alive and in good health. It is a lot different to the aircraft Flt Lt Hart used to fly – the Tornado GR.4 in RAF service – where the longest mission was 8 hours over Iraq. The crews on the B-2A, where Flt Lt Hart roles include being a fully mission qualified instructor pilot, regularly fly missions of a twenty hour duration, a length of time actually flown during their operations in England.
The B-2A deployment was led by Lieutenant Colonel Brad Cochran who explained the parent wing that he represents – the 509th Bomb Wing – had 18 crews and several maintainers from the both the 13th Bomb Squadron(BS) and 393rd BS plus the US Air Force Reserve. The B-2 mission were what was to be expected in a real wartime role, the aircraft on some days landing and with engines running, instigating a crew change and going back out on another mission. Also a pairs long range mission of 20 hours was undertaken, the aircraft taking off at 1700 hrs one day and not returning until 1300hrs the next day.
It was also a great experience for the maintainers. I spoke to Staff Sergeant Lopez, an avionics expert on the B-2A, about his experience in England. ‘Being on a B-2 squadron means that chances to travel away from Whiteman due to the aircraft’s mission are rare, so its great to deploy here. We have visited London and enjoy the atmosphere of the English pubs, which is more relaxed than back home’.
The two B-2A’s taking part were 93-1088,WM called ‘Spirit of Louisiania’ of the 393rd BS ‘Tigers’ and 82-1069,WM called ‘Spirit of Indiana’ of the 13th BS ‘Invisible Defenders’. Both aircraft belong to the 509th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The B-2 is a multi-role bomber made famous by its low observable, or ‘stealth’ characteristics.
From the latest in US military Bomber technology it was on to its elder statesman – the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress. Three have been deployed to RAF Fairford, two from Barksdale Air Force Base at Shreveport in Louisiana and one normally based at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota though currently the aircraft are stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. The B-52’s are 60-0059,LA belonging to the 96th BS, 2nd Bomb Wing (BW) and with nose art depicting ‘The Devils Own’, 61-0004,LA of the 20th BS, 2nd BW with nose art ‘El Lobo’ and 60-0017,MT of the 69th BS, 5th BW with nose art ‘I Peacemaker’ . I caught up with the commander of the 96th Bomb Squadron, Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Link, who explained what the B-52s were doing at RAF Fairford.
Lt-Col Link explained he had been commander of the 96th BS since June 2012 and was commanding the deployment to Fairford as the 96th Air Expeditionary Group. They have bought with them crews and maintainers from all the B-52 wings and also the US Navy. They were in England to work with United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) units and they’re NATO allies which included simulated practice launches of conventional weapons. With the B-2’s at Fairford alongside them it was a chance to do briefs together with there Stealth Bomber compatriots and to discuss tactics and integration. I asked Lt-Col Link about the aircraft’s age and he stated the youngest member of the squadron was a full 30 years younger than the jet he works on! But the B-52 has been continually updated which has been bought completely up to date with the so called ‘Connect Jet’ currently on test with the 46th Test Squadron. Lt-Col Link confirmed that the 96th Bomb Squadron will be the first operational B-52 unit to receive this jet.