—Adam J. Hebert
August 28, 2007— Three B-52 bombers from Barksdale AFB, La., last week demonstrated the ability to quickly find and identify a moving surface ship on the high seas. The mission was an opportunity for the Air Force to validate its expanding ability to perform long-range homeland defense operations. The flight was also a tribute to the legendary 1938 mission in which three B-17s intercepted the Italian ocean liner Rex roughly 700 miles east of New York City. That intercept proved the Army Air Corps could perform a long range intercept mission previously reserved for the Navy. This time, however, the bombers were equipped with the 2nd Bomb Wing’s latest targeting pods and datalink systems and were flown by a mix of active and Reserve crew members. Taking off at dawn from Barksdale, the three-ship flight proceeded east, took on fuel from a KC-10 tanker over the Atlantic, and headed for a search zone east of Bermuda. The crews expected the first challenge to be finding the target vessel, which in this case was the Navy maritime prepositioning ship 2nd Lt. John P. Bobo. The B-52s found the Bobo without difficulty, however, and flew past it numerous times for identification and photographic purposes. Mission commander and pilot of the lead aircraft, “Rex 51,” was Lt. Col. Robert Nordberg of Air Force Reserve Command’s 93rd Bomb Squadron, also at Barksdale. Nordberg explained that the flight was able to find the Bobo so quickly because the B-52’s radars were able to search nearly the entire target area.
All that did was locate a ship, however. Litening targeting pods borrowed from the Reserve unit for use on the active duty bombers allowed the flight to quickly confirm that this was, indeed, the correct ship. The threat of terrorism, vulnerability of the nation’s ports, and the massive number of ships on the world’s seas make the ability to intercept a suspicious vessel far from the US coast important. The B-52 crews confirmed that they could have used their targeting pods and laser-guided weapons to attack the ship if necessary. The bombers only had a ballpark idea of where the Bobo would be, and the ship was in motion throughout the mission, making this event unlike 2004’s Resultant Fury exercise in the Pacific. Also unlike Resultant Fury, which ended with the sinking of a decommissioned warship, no weapons were actually fired on this mission. “The threat’s out there,” said Col. Robert E. Wheeler, 2nd Bomb Wing commander. The Air Force’s bombers must be able to perform global strike missions from their home stations, a capability he said was ably demonstrated during the 10-hour, 3,500 mile flight last week. Also playing a major role in the mission was the Evolutionary Datalink (EDL), a laptop-based system that allowed the B-52 crews to stay in contact with the air operations center at Barksdale without using radios. The EDL system was high-maintenance and kept the crew of Rex 51 constantly busy, but it securely delivered messages, mission updates, and intelligence from “national assets” to the crews. The airmen also used the system to feed information back to the AOC—including the first images of the Bobo shortly after it was intercepted. Nordberg said the connection to the AOC is “critical,” because it allows a team of intelligence experts to evaluate a situation, relieving the two officers in the front of a B-52 from determining whether a target is legitimate or not. The crews also exercised the bombers’ connectivity and responsiveness to find “targets of opportunity.” On the return trip, US Northern Command tasked the B-52s to gather imagery of three locations in the southeast United States—a dam, a bridge, and an airport parking ramp. The three bomber crews filed new flight plans and split up the bombers, each heading to their separate en route target on the way back to Barksdale.
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