The latest in a series of US Strategic Commands (USSTRATCOM) Bomber Task Force (BTF) deployments to Europe took place in March when six B-52H Stratofortresses and more than 450 personnel from the United States Air Force (USAF) 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana deployed to RAF Fairford, in Gloucestershire. Chris Wood reports, with additional photography by Tom Gibbons.
BTF missions have been flown world wide since 2014, but this was the biggest deployment of a single bomber type since Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in 2003.
The objectives of the deployment were to enable theatre integration with USSTRATCOM joint partners, allied nations and other USAF units, as well as to familiarise the crews with flying in the European environment, to send a message of assurance to NATO allies and also to act in a deterrent role to possible adversaries.
Speaking at a press conference on March 19th, Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, deputy commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa (USAFE-AFAFRICA) said “The task force will operate across the USAFE-AFAFRICA theatre from the Arctic to the Sahara Desert, demonstrating how the U.S., with our allies and partners, can quickly amass at a time and location of our choosing to deter and defend against any possible aggression. Our robust, reliable, flexible, and survivable strategic capabilities remain an important contribution to security in current and future warfighting domains.”
According to Lieutenant Colonel Mike Esposito, the BTF commander “Overall, our Airmen will become familiar with European airspace procedures, and enhance the skills and relationships key to operating in the European area of operations.”
Support aircraft, a mix of chartered civilian aircraft and USAF C-17A Globemaster IIIs, started to arrive on Thursday 7th March, and put in daily appearances until Monday 11th.
The first three B-52s arrived on Thursday 14th, followed by a single aircraft on the 15th and the last two on the 16th. The first missions were flown on Monday 18th and then missions were flown on most weekdays, with varying numbers of aircraft (anywhere between one and five) until the end of the deployment.
As Fairford is not normally an active base, the deployment included support staff, as well as aircrew and maintainers.
The aircraft appeared to fly missions predominantly over the Baltic and eastern Europe, but also ventured north to Norway, south down to Morocco and west out over the Atlantic. They were observed carrying inert weapons on external stations, but official photographs show live GBU-38s being assembled, so presumably these were carried internally. The aircraft were also seen operating over various bombing ranges around Europe, including Holbeach and Tain in the UK, and Vliehors in the Netherlands.
The last mission was flown on Wednesday 3rd April, with a single aircraft to eastern Europe. There was no flying on the 4th, but then three aircraft returned to Barksdale on 5th April, with the remaining three following on the 6th. A number of civilian charter aircraft arrived on Thursday 11th, with the last one departing the following morning.
Aircraft deployed to Fairford for this deployment were:
60-0024/– B-52H 20th BS
60-0025/LA B-52H 20th BS “Ol’ Crow Express II”
60-0032/LA 96th BS
60-0058/LA B-52H 20th BS
61-0013/LA B-52H 20th BS “High Tension III”
61-0015/LA B-52H 96th BS “The Last Laugh”
“RAF Fairford provides tailored capabilities and facilities that make it an ideal platform to launch, recover and maintain B-52 airpower,” Esposito said. It can only be a matter of time before the next BTF deployment to Fairford.