B-1B Lancers flew two high-profile training missions in the
Pacific following North Korea’s recent test of an intercontinental ballistic
missile, showing the Air Force’s ability to fly long-range strategic bombers in the
Two B-1s flew a 10-hour, sequenced mission alongside South
Korean F-15s, Japanese F-2s, and USAF F-16s on July 7, dropping inert weapons at the
Pilsung Range in South Korea. The mission showed that the US is “trained,
equipped and ready to unleash the full capability of our allied air forces,”
Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy said in a release.
The second flight came one day after two B-1s flew a historic
nighttime training mission over the East China Sea in coordination with
The mission marked the first time B-1s from US Pacific Command have conducted
training with Japanese fighter aircraft at night, according to a Pacific Air Forces release.
The bombers, assigned to the 9th Expeditionary Squadron, launched their mission
from Andersen AFB, Guam. The Lancers were deployed from Dyess AFB, Texas, as
part of the continuous bomber presence (CBP) in the Pacific region. The goal of
the CBP mission is “showcasing a capability to our allies and partners as well
as to those who might wish us harm,” Brig. Gen. Stephen Williams told Air Force Magazine shortly before
The sorties were part of a higher tempo of air operations at PACAF in the past
two years. In large part, that elevation has come in response to “the dynamic
environment” created by the growing North Korean threat, said Williams, who is
director of air and cyberspace operations at PACAF. “The use of our continuous
bomber presence has significantly increased in the last year,” he said.
The number of sorties classified as higher headquarters-directed (HHQ) missions
has been increasing since 2015. An HHQ mission is one not considered a “local”
Andersen flight, but is ordered from the PACAF Air Operations Center, PACOM, or
even the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
HHQ missions can be in support of the broad CBP mission of assurance and
deterrence, or they can be “for a specific reason,” PACAF spokesperson Maj.
Phillip Ventura said. “There are some things that we do as exercises that may
potentially be in response” to provocations by North Korea or other adversaries
in the region, Williams said.
In 2014, PACAF generated 27 such HHQ missions. That number was almost doubled
in 2015, when PACAF flew 45 HHQ missions. Last year, the number jumped again to
73—nearly tripling in two years’ time. And the pace is still quickening. “We’re
probably going to approach a potential of doubling it again this year,”
Contrary to the picture presented by some in Congress, PACAF insists that its
readiness levels are primed to support this acceleration of the mission. “The
B-1 aircrew and maintainers [are] meeting 100 percent of U.S. Pacific Command's
mission requirements,” PACAF commander Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy told Air Force Magazine in an email.
While admitting “there’s always a readiness challenge,” Williams also insisted
that, “we’re as ready in the Pacific as anywhere in our Air Force” and “in some
ways more so.”
In March, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) questioned B-1 aircraft availability rates after an Andersen training
formation was forced to fly with one B-1 instead of a planned complement of
two. Williams said PACAF made the change because of a tanker that experienced
an “in-flight emergency, and when the tanker fell out, we could only send one
B-1.” He said the problem had nothing to do with B-1 availability. “I don’t
want the B-1s to get a bad rap for that,” he said.
PACAF’s tankers, on the other hand, “are older than me,” Williams said. And
that’s why “the new tanker’s going to be a big deal for us.”
Still, within a “budget-constrained environment,” PACAF could always use more
bombers. “If you could give me two more B-1s down at Guam, I would take them in
a heartbeat,” Williams admitted. But because demand exists “throughout the
globe,” Williams said he knows PACAF has to keep “a realistic appetite” and
share bombers with other areas of responsibility.
PACAF is also looking to the future of the US bomber fleet. “If the question
is: 'Do we have enough bomber capability in the Air Force?'” Williams
said, “I would say in the austere budget environments we’ve been in, that’s
part of why the Air Force is working on the [B-21] Raider, to add to our bomber
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