For the past eight years, Air Force B-2s and B-52s have quietly created a persistent umbrella of power projection and deterrence in the Pacific. Bombers rotate to Guam and range across US Pacific Command’s area of responsibility on exercises that train crews and show the full reach of American airpower.
A B-2 flies over the Pacific Ocean during an exercise from Andersen AFB, Guam.
"The B-52 provides the capability to reach anywhere in the PACOM area of responsibility with a wide variety of weapons, allowing us to respond to whatever threats arise," said 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Michael Miller after his forces deployed in August 2011.
The Pacific region tour is not just about training. Bombers holding station on Guam are weaving together military power and political strategy—what is called the "continuous bomber presence."
Call it also bomber diplomacy—a method for a lean force to reassure allies and deter potential adversaries.
"We see great value in the continuous bomber presence," said Gen. Gary L. North, commander of Pacific Air Forces. "It has become a staple of our force posture and integrates well into the planning construct."
From the beginning, the bomber rotations served pointedly political ends. We wanted to show that while we were busy in the Middle East, we had a long-term and long-range presence in the Pacific," reflected North.
Of course, the bombers don’t do it alone. The continuous bomber presence is matched by "continuous tankers" in the form of KC-135s and KC-10s.
Frequent or even near-continuous presence of fighters including the F-15 and F-22 is another part of the theater security package. Guam is also stuffed with munitions for the Navy and Air Force. The base boasts a large fuel farm and 102,000 square miles of airspace in the Mariana Islands Range Complex alone.
The CBP bombers need the facilities of a major base to sustain their activities. "Think of Guam as the bull’s-eye and we go 360 degrees," North said of the CBP’s day-to-day flying.
PACOM leadership has five leading priorities in the region: advancing alliances and partnerships, maturing the US-China military-to-military relationship, developing ties with India, remaining prepared to respond on the Korean peninsula, and countering transnational threats. Continuous bomber presence serves several of these goals.
"Both our friends and adversaries are very aware of the force structure laydown in the Pacific," North said, adding that the continuous bomber presence continues to "draw emphasis."
US officials may not say it directly, but it’s clear enough the hard edge of bomber diplomacy fills an increasingly critical function: holding the line against undue expansion of influence by rising Chinese military capabilities. China’s official policy is "peaceful rise," to use the term coined by Premier Hu Jintao. Yet doctrine and training within the People’s Liberation Army and its air and sea arms forecast extended influence across the Pacific.
"Chinese military writings talk a lot about how to extend their power out to the second island chain, ... the 1,800-mile [factor], which would enable them to prevent other nations’ ability to have freedom of movement at that great range," North explained in February at an Air Force Association symposium in Orlando, Fla.
Even more telling, China’s military has spent the last decade making a great leap forward. "In 2000 less than 10 percent of their forces, their air forces, were considered modern," noted North. By 2009 the number had risen to 25 percent for Chinese fighters and 45 percent in their air defense forces, he said.
China is well on its way to becoming a regional—and even global—maritime power. As history has shown, long-range airpower projection is an essential complement in dealing with adversary naval forces.
The bomber presence lays down a marker that no PLA Navy ships can patrol without coming under the reach of land-based airpower. That’s a form of air superiority that has been a cornerstone of military operations in the Pacific since the 1940s.
Bomber forces are no strangers to diplomatic maneuvers, of course. In the 1950s and 1960s, showy worldwide deployments of B-29s, B-47s, B-58s, and B-52s capable of nuclear delivery expanded diplomatic options in many a crisis. This form of force-without-war was often targeted at the Soviet Union, but the bomber deployments were also intended to influence so-called Third World nations wavering between the Western allies and the Soviet Bloc as both camps vied for influence.
SSgt. Dustin Hyden and SSgt. Doyle Atkinson load inert naval mines onto a B-52 at Andersen in preparation for a joint USAF-Navy exercise, Valiant Shield. (USAF photo by SSgt. Jamie Powell)
Bombers from a base in Spain, he continued, would allow diplomats "something to work behind."
The "handful" eventually reached 14,000 troops, but the point about bomber diplomacy was no less true. Gen. Nathan F. Twining, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised President Eisenhower that sending SAC bombers forward would be a highly visible move. Eisenhower liked it. Moving the bombers would show the Soviet Union "readiness and determination without implying any threat of aggression," Eisenhower later wrote in his memoirs.
Much the same is now going on in the Pacific.
Air Force B-52 and B-2 units typically send two to six bombers on rotations to Guam. From the island base they stage long training flights to every point on the compass and frequently drop live ordnance at training ranges. The CBP bombers have become regular participants in multinational exercises and even starred at regional air shows.
This time, the bombers are part of a powerful package of diplomacy with much more diverse aims. Cold War bomber deployments were usually direct reactions to crises. Like chess pieces, commanders moved the bombers forward to demonstrate intent then pulled them back as the political situation changed.
The CBP, on the other hand, is more permanent. Each combatant commander requests forces for theater security cooperation. For Pacific Command, those forces may include air, land, and sea elements. It aims to reassure allies and confirm strong US commitment to the region. Bombers are establishing deterrence through a long-term posture rather than occasional crisis response.
This form of "force without war" invigorates cooperative relationships and provides the credible military options so central to effective deterrence. Along the way, the CBP has become one of the most enduring—and economical—pillars of US diplomacy.
An Almost Eight-Year Presence
But it’s not all about the soft side. What’s unique about CBP is that it has become not only enduring but also one of the most assertive elements and has taken on a high-profile policy function going beyond just exercises. This is because bombers have the range and payload to spring from exercise participants to first-night attackers of nearly any type of target.
A B-52 gets fuel from a KC-135 during exercise Cope North in February. Cope North is a joint US-Japanese interoperability exercise.
Deploying to Guam was also a mark of deterrent power, and the island was the site of one of the earliest prolonged deployments of the B-2 back in 1998. The exercise was named Island Spirit and its mission was to conduct sustained operations simulating two weeks of continuous bombing.
In the event, a B-2 formation dropped Mk 82 bombs for the first time over the range at Farallon de Medinilla in the Northern Marianas.
In 2000, Pacific Command won approval to stockpile conventional air launched cruise missiles on Guam. Making the classic first-night attack bomber weapon available signaled that the US was serious about maintaining its reach in the Pacific—and the CALCM’s standoff range complemented the B-52’s reach.
Bomber deployments to Guam began on an irregular basis in 2003. "We were still dealing with the repercussions of the EP-3 being struck by the Chinese," noted North, referring to the April 2001 collision of a Navy surveillance aircraft with a Chinese interceptor over the South China Sea. "Guam was a great place to put folks for long-range maritime strike."
The signature event was a March 2003 deployment of B-1s and B-52s. It was the same month Operation Iraqi Freedom launched. This dose of bomber diplomacy was clearly intended to convey that the US could fight in Iraq but still publicly display its ability to deal with a pop-up crisis in the Pacific.
The official start of the continuous bomber presence came in February 2004. B-52s from Minot Air Force Base deployed to Guam.
Geography made Guam the natural choice, as the island represents "the deepest penetration of American soil into the Western Pacific, and therefore it provides an opportunity for us," said retired Gen. Paul V. Hester, who headed PACAF in 2005.
Commanders soon touted the value of the deployment for seasoning their airmen in tasks from assembling bombs to ramping up maintenance.
An F-22 assigned to JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, prepares to take on fuel from a KC-135 near Guam. There is also a "continuous tanker" presence in the PACOM area of responsibility.
"As we have moved forces out of the Pacific and rotated them into [US Central Command] over the past several years since 2001, we need to maintain an ability for calmness with the same-level kind of effective force that we had permanently stationed there," Hester explained.
Bombers soon roamed the whole Pacific Rim. B-52s flew exercises with land forces in the northern parts of Australia. Bombers flew to Thailand and were supported by Thai Army ground units, US Army ground units, and conventional and special operations forces, Hester said in 2005.
The exercises had another purpose. That was what Hester called "normalizing" bombers as visitors to foreign airfields.
The main activity of the aircraft serving the CBP centers on a series of exercises sharing the code name Lightning. Polar Lightning reaches to Alaska. Jungle Lightning sends bombers toward Southeast Asia while Blue Lightning points toward the northeast. Other exercises have included Koa Lightning, which takes place near Hawaii. Bombers also fly in some of these exercises from continental US bases, but the Guam-based Lightning sorties take on multiple layers of meaning.
For the aircrews, it’s about sharpening execution.
"Most missions for bombers are long-duration flights. ... It is important that we practice like we play, and Polar Lightning provides a great opportunity for our aircrew to get some long-endurance experience," summed up Maj. Beth Makros, who was assistant director of operations and a mission planner for a Polar Lightning exercise flown in 2009 by the 13th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron. On that occasion B-2s from Guam flew a 24-hour mission into Alaskan airspace. Tankers escorted the bombers to Alaska and were prestaged for refueling on the way back to Andersen Air Force Base.
Other exercises such as Koa Lightning in 2007 added significant integration with ground forces, as B-52s dropped practice ordnance with Global Positioning System guidance. Col. Damian McCarthy, 36th Operations Group commander at Andersen, said the effort practiced real-time force integration between fighters, combat controllers on the ground, and tankers.
The Koa Lightning sorties kept the B-52s in the air for 18 hours—longer than the average 10- to 12-hour training sortie, and on a par with the average of 17 to 19 hours for a combat sortie.
Training aside, bombers are not fanning out over the Pacific because of ranges and airspace. The larger purpose is deterrence and reassurance.
Continuous bomber presence essentially puts airmen on a simulated wartime footing. Once in place on Guam, "they are focused on nothing but the mission," said North.
The exercises "simulate all the munitions for major combat," North said. Beyond the ordnance drops are opportunities for rehearsing other aspects of combat missions, including electronic warfare.
The CBP’s diplomatic importance is growing as well. "My government’s overriding obligation to allies, partners, and the region is to reaffirm America’s security commitments in this region," then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates told the Shangri-La security forum of Pacific powers in Singapore in 2010. "We are renewing our commitment to a strong and effective extended deterrence that guarantees the safety of the American people and the defense of our allies and partners."
Airmen with the 127th Air Refueling Group board a KC-135 at Selfridge ANGB, Mich., headed for Guam. "Continuous tankers" make the bomber presence possible.
"We are sized for steady-state operations," North pointed out, adding he was satisfied with the detachment of bombers and "very pleased with the rotation that [Air Force] Global Strike Command works."
Bombers in the CBP maximize their impact through effect and diplomacy more than numbers. In wartime operations, the number of airframes on hand to strike enemy targets is the typical measure of merit. Small numbers have outsize impact in bomber diplomacy. What has made the CBP a success is its focus on rigorous simulation of combat missions.
Another ingredient is consistency. Eight years of repeated, realistic simulation of combat missions have created a positive weight of interest at a time when the extent of US military commitment to the Asia-Pacific region is being questioned.
The CBP is on track to be just as valuable over the next decade.
"China’s development of a carrier-killer missile means that US naval airpower may be pushed farther out into the Pacific," wrote Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute in an August column in the Wall Street Journal.
Pressure on theater forces will add to the value of ranging bombers—and make it imperative that Guam remains a robust operating base.
There’s no doubt the readiness and determination that marks the CBP will be a prime product for airpower as smaller forces juggle global commitments in years to come. Allies and adversaries are well aware the CBP is all about the long-range and long-term muscle of American airpower.
"It’s well understood," North said.
No diplomat could have phrased it better.
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