More bomber operations mean 'the chess pieces are moving,' US Air Force's top officer says

Air Force B-52 bomber Baltic SeaUS Air Force/SSgt. Trevor T. McBrideB-52 bombers in formation after missions over the Baltic Sea, October 23, 2019.
  • The US Air Force’s bomber fleet has been busy, flying frequent missions to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
  • Those flights are to “make sure the chess pieces are moving on a regular basis,” the Air Force chief of staff said.
  • The Air Force has to be “thoughtful” about the messages it sends to adversaries, Gen. Charles Brown said.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The increasing activity of US Air Force bombers is part of a concerted effort to show that those planes can fly whenever and wherever they want, the Air Force’s top officer said last week.

“That’s the capability of global air power … and the ability to operate from and be prepared to go any place, anywhere, any time,” Gen. Charles Brown, Air Force chief of staff, told reporters on Wednesday.

Brown’s comments came in response to a question about this month’s deployment of B-1B bombers to Norway, the first time US bombers have operated from that country.

“Will it happen again in Norway? Probably a good chance. When? It could happen at any time,” Brown said. “This is all about competition, and if I told you exactly when it was going to happen, I’m not going to be competing, because you guys would report it.”

Air Force B-1B bomber NorwayNorwegian Air ForceA US Air Force B-1B bomber after arriving at Orland Air Station in Norway for a Bomber Task Force Europe Mission, February 22, 2021.

US bombers have been conducting shorter deployments overseas and round-trip flights from the US as part of dynamic force employment, a concept in which US forces aim “to be strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable,” Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Middents told Insider in October.

Middents led six B-52 bombers on a five-week bomber task force, or BTF, mission to the UK in August. BTFs are meant to demonstrate that flexibility – during Middents’ five-week mission, the bombers flew all over the region.

Another BTF last spring took B-1Bs over Sweden for the first time. Five times since mid-November, US-based bombers have flown to the Middle East and back on BTFs that US officials say are meant to deter Iran.

Bombers are also more active in the Indo-Pacific region, where the Air Force in early 2020 announced the end of its continuous bomber presence, a 16-year mission during which bombers deployed to Guam for months at a time.

BTF missions have “been really, really successful,” Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of Pacific Air Forces, told reporters in November, adding that in the first nine months of BTFs, “we’ve actually flown more of the bomber-type missions than we did in the last nine months of the continuous bomber presence.”

Air Force B-1B bomber Navy F/A-18 fighter jetStaff Sgt. Peter ReftUS Navy F/A-18s, Marine Corps F-35s, and an Air Force B-1B during a training exercise in the Indo-Pacific region, August 18, 2020.

The first BTF under the current model was in May, when B-1Bs deployed to Anderson Air Force Base on Guam. Since then, US bombers have operated out of Guam, Diego Garcia, and Alaska, or flown from the US to train with partners in the region.

The goal of BTFs is “to regain bomber readiness with fewer continuous deployments and to complicate the targeting problem” for adversaries “by deploying and applying pressure at times and places of our choosing,” Brig. Gen. Jeremy Sloane, commander of the 36th Wing at Andersen Air Force Base, said at an event in January.

“So far, bomber task force deployments have been fairly frequent, so we really haven’t been able to capture any significant lessons learned as we made that change,” Sloane added.

The Air Force is trying to keep adversaries guessing with those operations, Brown said last week.

“I want to make sure the chess pieces are moving on a regular basis and they’re not … super glued to the chess board,” Brown said. “You can expect you’ll see more bombers flying around the world to do exactly that.”

Sending clear messages

Air Force B-2A Spirit stealth bomber Diego GarciaUS Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Heather SalazarA US airman marshals a B-2 stealth bomber after its arrival in Diego Garcia, August 12, 2020.

The Indo-Pacific region is set to be the focus for the US military in the years ahead.

Within days of President Joe Biden taking office, bombers againĀ deployed to Guam. In February, a B-1B became the first US bomber to land in India since World War II.

The Pentagon this month announced a review of the military’s global footprint, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said would inform his advice to Biden about “how we best allocate military forces in pursuit of national interests.”

Austin has embraced the 2018 National Defense Strategy, but that review won’t be completed until mid-year, leaving the Biden administration’s view of the military’s global role unclear until then.

“Seeing as how recently Biden arrived at the presidency, and the fact that his administration has no Asia strategy as yet, I can only chalk up bomber deployments to bureaucratic inertia,” said Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

The Trump administration “committed US military assets to all manner of coercive signaling and chest-thumping,” Jackson said. Trump wasn’t and Biden isn’t intent on going on the offensive militarily, Jackson added, “but with military signaling you’re playing with the risk of misperception.”

Air Force B-52 bomber Norway fighter jetUS Air Force/Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBrideA US Air Force B-52H and three Norwegian Air Force F-16s fly toward the Arctic during Bomber Task Force 20-1, November 6, 2019.

That risk exists elsewhere. Under Trump, US military activity in Europe became more assertive, even as he called for troop drawdowns there.

If the trend continues, “you could see escalating military activity that sort of pressurizes environment for no obvious purpose, other than left to their own devices military … commanders will increase activity,” Michael Kofman, senior research scientist in the Russia Studies Program at nonprofit research group CNA, told Insider in November.

There isn’t much obvious benefit from that signaling, Jackson said, and Biden’s team should be wary “of the many landmines Trump has hidden in the bureaucracy.”

“The Pentagon in particular has gotten accustomed to operating without adult supervision. That’s a dumb reason to play with the risk of war,” added Jackson, who previously worked in the Defense Department.

Asked last week about future bomber operations, Brown said there were many options “that push the buttons for our adversaries.”

But the Air Force needs to be “thoughtful” about the message it’s sending, added Brown, who has said the service needs to develop “deep institutional understanding of China and Russia.”

“We just can’t … send bombers out,” Brown said. “We’ve got to think through … what is the desired effect we want to have with every action we do. That takes deeper thought on our part, but it also takes deeper thought to understand our adversaries.”

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