Between the 28th of May and the 24th of June, the exercises BALTOPS and SABER STRIKE were taking place above the Baltic Region.
The exercise BALTOPS is an annual maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic Region and was held between the 1st of June and ends on the 15th of June and was taking place for the 45th time. During these two weeks about 4000 personnel, more than 50 ships and submarines and about 55 aircraft from 14 countries (including NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partners like Finland and Sweden) took part in an intensive and complex training. The goal of this exercise was to enhance flexibility and interoperability among the participants.
The exercise Saber Strike is a long-standing, U.S. European Command-scheduled cooperative training exercise that took place in various regions in the Baltics and Poland from the 28th of May and the 24th of June. During these weeks about 11.000 U.S. and NATO service members from 20 countries took part in this exercise.
The goal of this exercise was to exercise with NATO’s enhanced forward presence battle groups as part of a multinational division while conducting an integrated, deterrence-oriented field training exercise designed to improve the interoperability and readiness of participating nations’ armed forces.
During these two exercises there were all three type of bombers (B-1B Lancer, B-2 Spirit and the B-52H Stratofortress) deployed to RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom. It was the first time that all three bombers were deployed simultaneously at RAF Fairford. In total there were three B-1B Lancers from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South-Dakota and three Boeing B-52H Stratofortresses from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana based at RAF Fairford for these exercises. The two B-2 Spirits from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri were at RAF Fairford for the media day on the 12th of June.
About 800 Air Force Global Strike Command personnel were deployed to RAF Fairford for the third year running, to support the exercises with the United States joint-partners and NATO Allies. The deployment of strategic bombers to the U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa’s forward operating location for the USAF’s strategic bombers provides important integration and interaction with the United States’ NATO allies and partner nations.
The different scenarios between the BALTOPS and the SABER STRIKE exercise.
We have spoken with Captain “Jackal” from the 34th Bomb Squadron, Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota about his experiences on the B-1 and the deployment at RAF Fairford, UK.
As a former crew member on the B-1B Lancer, he is now flying for five years on the B-1B and has about 1600 flight hours on the type. He got his wings in 2012 after successfully completing the Undergraduate Combat System Officer Training at Pensacola.
Capt. “Jackal” spoke about the difference in scenarios between both exercises. “Both the exercises BALTOPS and SABER STRIKE is different from the war we were fighting in the past 15 years.” The scenarios during BALTOPS were especially assaults and landings with troops. The scenarios during SABER STRIKE had large troop movements, infantry and vehicles like tanks in a contested environment with a potential for the surface to air missiles.
The captain continues: “The main task during the exercise SABER STRIKE is Close Air Support (CAS), like the B-1B pilots also executed before in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The main task during the exercise BALTOPS is just surveillance, using the radar to find the boats and portray a kind of advisory trying to penetrate and destroy the carriers too.” During the exercises, the B-1s were also playing ‘Red Air’ to give the ships a general overview of what they can expect. Sometimes they were also playing ‘Blue Air’ to show that they can fulfil both roles.
The captain emphasizes the significance of the deployment of the number of bombers: “It was very important to have so many different bombers at RAF Fairford for these two exercises because it was to show the allied partners nations and show NATO that, no matter what will happen, we will support them with the bombers of the United States military.
It’s also to show to any kind of aggressive state that we can move on a very short notice to a forward deploying location and execute a global strike wherever we want, at any time.”
During the exercises, the crew of the B-1B were working in cooperation with the JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) on the ground. There were JTACs from the U.S.A, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Capt. “Jackal” explains the communication between them and the JTACs on the ground: “For us, it was really awesome to work with these ground troops. Despite the language barrier between the controllers and us. Because we are very experienced to work together with JTACs of the coalition in the Middle East, it is no problem to work with these guys.” The crew of the B-1B are very used to working with foreign ground operatives, but sometimes there was a small language, or capability knowledge gap because the JTACs didn’t know what the B-1B Lancer is capable of. For many of the controllers it was the first time that they were working together with the B-B Lancers. For both sides this was the main reason to work together.
The interception by Russian SU-27s
During these exercises the bombers were intercepted by Russian SU-27s. Capt. “Jackal” recalls interceptions by the Russian Su-27s during the exercise. “The Russian SU-27s were flying around us, but for the most part it were complete safe intercepts.” During these flights the crew didn’t have any issues with the Russian fighters. “As crew of the B-1B Lancers it was important to keep flying our own mission, but the SU-27s didn’t really bother us”. The captain also mentioned that the B-1B Lancers and the SU-27s flew side by side, without any problems.
RESERVISTS that are flying on the B-1B Lancer
There is something very unique about the participation of the B-1B bombers. They are flown and maintained by reservists. Reserves integrate with active duty personnel and share aircraft to better utilize expensive assets.
Capt. “Jackal” told us about the reservists that are flying in the B-1B Lancers. He gave us an example “One of our guys who is retired is a police officer and he is a Reserve Weapon System Officer”. The U.S. Air Force does this with almost all the older airframes within the Reserve Component and the Guard Component as well. Some people in the squadron work full time and they keep up the currencies on the type and will be able to fly with everybody that comes in one or twice a month to fly. But then there is a good person in the squadron who, to show up maybe once or twice a month and fly a week.
Maintenance of the B-1B Lancer
We have spoken with Lt. McKerman who is Head maintenance for about eight months after he was at the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and is responsible for the maintenance of the B-1B Lancers during this deployment. For the maintainers, it was a huge learning experience what parts they had to bring with them to RAF Fairford. He explains: “The parts for the new Block 16 are different then for the older models”. It was a learning experience to decide which parts are not necessary needed. It’s also important to learn which parts they didn’t bring with them, but which are necessary for a deployment like this.
When there are parts needed to get the B-1B Lancers in the air again, and they haven’t taken these with them, it takes a while to get these parts at the deployed location. Normally it takes between a few days and one week to get parts at RAF Fairford for example. Of course, this depends on the parts. Because the B-1B is a unique and older aircraft, and a lot of the parts are not manufactured anymore, they use the refurbished parts from the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Tucson, Arizona. It is a unique jet, but there are limited parts available for it.
Not many people are needed to get a B-1B Lancer in the air, only a few crew chiefs and some specialists. In general, they need about 10 persons to get the B-1Bs operational. “But when you have to stay for a longer period you have to bring more with you for the bigger issues and the manufacturing parts”.
For their home base, they need more people because the B-1Bs are based there permanently, and maintenance goes beyond what’s needed on deployment.
If there are technical problems with the B-1B Lancers and they have to land at an airbase in Poland instead of RAF Fairford for example, they can call the maintainers at RAF Fairford.
“When we haven’t got the manpower or the capability to fly to that location, we will call our people at our home base Ellsworth AFB to repair the aircraft”. These guys are on the right location within a couple of days.
The B-1B Lancer
Nicknamed “The Bone”, the B-1B Lancer is a long-range, multi-mission conventional bomber, which has served the United States Air Force since 1985. Originally designed for nuclear capabilities, the B-1 switched to an exclusively conventional combat role in the mid-1990s. The B-1 bomber has advanced over the years as it is modified for current needs. It carries the largest payload in the Air Forces long-range bomber fleet. In 1999, during Operation Allied Force, six B-1s flew 2 percent of the strike missions, yet dropped 20 per cent of the ordinance. During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, it even dropped 40 per cent of all weapons while flying only 5 per cent of the sorties. The B-1 has been nearly continuously deployed in combat operations over Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.
Today’s B-1 can carry a mixed load of weapons in each of its three bays. Its long range allows it to be deployed far from the conflict and fly unrefueled for long periods. Its swept wings allow it to fly fast, slow, low or high as the situation demands. With only four crew members required, missions can rapidly be adjusted in flight to keep up with adversaries. The radar and targeting pod can be used for positive target identification and the aircraft can employ a variety of other weapons, including laser-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles wit an extended range, and high explosive BLU-129 bombs.
In April 2012, Boeing has received a US $55.3 million production contract from the U.S. Air Force to upgrade the B-1 Lancer navigation system. The upgrade has replaced the original navigation hardware with a new ring laser gyro system. The new inertial navigation system uses a ring laser gyro with no moving parts to wear out and repair. This upgrade has dramatically increased the system reliability.
Later in 2012 Boeing has received a US $65.8 million Lot 2 follow-on contract from the U.S. Air Force for nine B-1 Lancer bomber Integrated Battle Station (IBS) modification kits, spares, training, support equipment and engineering support. IBS integrates three major aircraft modifications: an updated front and cockpit, a new diagnostic system and a new Link 16 data link, which all enhance situational awareness and communication for the crew.
The latest update that came in 20156 exists a trio of updates also known as the integrated battle station, are ensuring the B-1 meets today’s mission requirements and further establishes a solid foundation for additional modernization in the decades to come
We have asked Capt. “Jackal” if he expects big changes in the next years with the B-1s.
He explains: ”I don’t see big changes. I think that the B-1 is getting some newer engine replacements. Not the whole engine but pieces and parts of it. For example for the fuel efficiency”.
For the crew of the B-1s, the biggest differences between exercises in Europe and continental USA were that they had the chance to cooperate with the Coalition partners. The Captain explains:”We can’t do this at home. It costs tons of money. During Red-Flag and Green Flag our aircraft and squadrons have worked together with Emirati Mirages before. But we were able to integrate and train together with the coalition and with the navies of the different countries. Because we are situated in the middle of the United States, we don’t fly to the coast very often to train and integrate with the navy.”
The squadron has learned a lot, and they enjoy doing it: “It is good to see this part of the world and it is good to see how we can pick all our necessities and move it to a location, fly out from there, work with coalition partners and other US units like the F-16s from Aviano and execute missions successfully with JTACS from Lithuania and Latvia”.
Article by Roelof-Jan Gort.
Photos by Ralph Blok & Roelof-Jan Gort
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