South Dakota’s two senators, John Thune and Mike Rounds, both Republicans, were informed by the Air Force on Wednesday that the service had officially designated Ellsworth as the bomber’s main operating base. The news wasn’t entirely unexpected, however.
In March, the Air Force had announced that Ellsworth was selected as the preferred location for the first operational B-21 Raider as well as the formal training unit.
Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and Dyess AFB, Texas, will also receive B-21 Raiders as the aircraft become available. The Air Force had previously said that it used a deliberate process to minimize mission impact during the transition, maximize facility reuse, minimize cost and reduce overhead.
“These three bomber bases are well suited for the B-21,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather A. Wilson said in March 2019. “We expect the first B-21 Raider to be delivered beginning in the mid-2020s, with subsequent deliveries phased across all three bases.”
“It’s a once in a generation, historic opportunity for South Dakota,” Thune told the Associated Press last week, adding that it will ensure Ellsworth remains a vital part of the nation’s military.
Sen. Thune had said the bomber could also represent an economic boom for the western part of his state, as the bomber will likely result in a doubling of the size of the base’s personnel and could bring in 3,000 more service members.
Construction projects for the bomber hangers and other facilities are also expected. The base, which is located near Rapid City, is already one of the largest employers in the state and according to a 2017 estimate it had an annual economic impact of over $350 million.
The base had faced the possibility of closure in 2005, and it was even briefly on the Pentagon’s list of military bases that should be closed or relocated.
Ellsworth AFB currently is home to two B-1 bomber squadrons. The Air Force will incrementally retire existing B-1 Lancers as well as B-2 Spirits when a sufficient number of B-21s are delivered. According to the Air Force, Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, and Minot AFB, North Dakota, will continue to host the B-52 Stratofortress which is expected to continue conducting operations through 2050.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” which is available on Amazon.com.
The service selected Collins Aerospace, part of Raytheon Technologies, to design and develop a new wheel and brake for the bomber, and to retrofit 77 new brake and wheel combinations, including spares provisioning, the company said Wednesday.
To increase the brakes’ wear life, the company will use its carbon heat sink material known as DURACARB, which provides “increased thermal absorption” as the aircraft slows and brakes on the runway during a landing, explained Matthew Maurer, vice president and general manager of military programs, landing and mechanical systems.
“Today, the aircraft uses the steel brake, and we’re going to be replacing that with a carbon brake,” Maurer said in an interview Monday.
The new brake-wheel combination “is going to allow for longer intervals between brake overhauls or longer intervals between inspections on the wheels,” he added. “We anticipate being through the design and development phase and supporting flight testing by 2023, and then [retrofitting] the fleet by 2026.”
Air Force maintainers will work alongside engineers to learn how to change or update the system; Maurer said the service will run the schedule, choosing which bombers will receive the first upgrades. Collins did not publicize the cost of the contract award.
The Air Force already uses the DURACARB system on the C-130 Hercules, F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle. The new wheel is rated for 12,500 miles, a major upgrade from just 1,500 miles for the B-52’s current brake system, Maurer said.
The Air Force is also nearing a decision on procuring new B-52 engines.
Three companies are in the running to replace the engines: Pratt & Whitney, which is a Raytheon Technologies’ company; General Electric; and Rolls-Royce. But while the Air Force issued a request for proposal, or RFP, last May, it has delayed issuing a contract award.
In 2019, lawmakers insisted that service officials nail down contract specifics before they would provide funding. That year, the Air Force estimated it would spend around $1.3 billion through 2024 on work related to the re-engining.
The RFP stipulated a total of 608 engines for its 76-aircraft fleet.
While officials have said there has been no delay, the service has still not committed to an official award date.
Gen. Tim Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, said in February that it’s “too early” to determine whether the award will be announced in June – the original projected contract announcement time frame.
“We should have this summer the answers back from the competitors to be considered,” Ray said during the Air Force Association’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium. “And so then, from that process, we’ll go from there.
“This is not being [dragged] out,” he said, as reported by Defense News. “It is on time. In fact, it is several years early.”
He said that digital prototyping, or simulating parts via computer models, has begun on the companies’ side, which could shorten the engine production time.
The planes are among the oldest in the Air Force. Three generations of airmen have flown the B-52 in combat, from Vietnam to Afghanistan; the final bomber rolled off the production line in 1962.
The B-52 has been prominent in missions such as Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, as well as the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Affectionately known as Big Ugly Fat Fellow, or BUFF, B-52s have been on rotation for the service’s Bomber Task Force, or BTF, missions over the past year, part of the Pentagon’s larger “dynamic force employment” strategy.
February was a historic month for US Air Force bombers, with two first-of-their-kind operations on opposite sides of the globe.
On February 3, a B-1 bomber and 40 airmen deployed to the Aero India trade show in southern India. A US bomber was last in India in 1945, when it was still under British rule, making this a first for of the Republic of India.
The event included the first US bomber flyover with an Indian fighter jet – “a very significant moment” in US-India military ties, Lt. Col. Michael Fessler, lead US demonstration pilot at Aero India, said in a release.
Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of US Pacific Air Forces, echoed that sentiment later in February, telling Insider it was “very exciting to see.”
The “value” of being on the ground is the “collaboration and just the ability to talk in person with those that have mutual interests,” Wilsbach said during a press conference at the Air Force Association air-warfare symposium.
US-India ties tightened in recent months, spurred on by rising tensions with China. India only recently disengaged from a standoff with China – the deadliest in decades – on their disputed border in the western Himalayas.
The US increased its support for India during that months-long confrontation by delivering cold-weather gear and through “intelligence-sharing,” Wilsbach said in November.
“The ability to partner up with India to the max extent that we can is really important to us,” Wilsbach told Insider in February.
Wilsbach visited Indian Air Force leaders in early March to discuss “ways to further strengthen” bilateral ties.
Their activities “have really been a great demonstration of partnership with our Norwegians friends and an ability to work through the interoperability that is so important,” Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, told Insider at another AFA press conference.
Tensions between NATO and Russia have been elevated since Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. Norway shares a border with Russia and has in the past been cautious about NATO exercises near that boundary.
“The Arctic is a very important area for the cooperation between the United States and Norway,” Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norway’s minister of defense, said at a recent think-tank event.
“This deployment represents a unique opportunity for cooperation and joint training with” Norwegian forces, Bakke-Jensen added. “At the same time, the scope of Allied activities must be measured to avoid unnecessary escalation and misunderstandings.”
“A great deal of what we’re doing now with our bomber task forces is part of the competitive space,” Gen. Timothy Ray, who oversees bomber operations as head of Air Force Global Strike Command, told Insider at a separate AFA press conference.
“So my ability to quickly get to places around the globe and to show presence and support for partners and allies to augment the forces that are forward, I think, is a very powerful thing,” Ray added.
As a result, US bombers have been doing more round-trip flights from the US, which “have a bit of an unpredictability that gives us some opportunities,” and more short-term overseas deployments known as bomber task forces, which “give us a different set of opportunities,” Ray said.
“We’ve put a lot of focus on the Pacific and on Europe,” Ray added.
“Norway and India have been strategically quite significant,” Ray said. “Now we’re kind of just hitting our stride, and I think expanding beyond the normal” locations – such as the UK, Diego Garcia, or Guam – “has really been effective.”
“A lot more options are on the table,” Ray added. “We’re going to continue work them.”
US officials are careful with how they describe those operations, saying they’re meant as messages to friends and foes but not as threats, but observers question whether that messaging will have the desired impact.
The Biden administration is still working on a broader strategy for Asia, and the fact that bomber flights there have continued apace suggests “bureaucratic inertia” and comes with a “risk of misperception,” Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at New Zealand’s Victoria University, told Insider in February.
Russia is getting the message, “but there is so far no indication that it is causing them to back down,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told Insider.
Bomber flights, particularly in sensitive areas of the Arctic, “probably” reinforce Moscow’s “perception that NATO is a threat, and a growing one, that requires Russia to counter-posture and continue to modernize their capabilities,” Kristensen said. “As such, this resembles the action-reaction dynamic we remember from the Cold War.”
The US Air Force has begun constructing prototype shelters in anticipation of someday housing its next-generation bomber, B-21 Raider.
The service has erected a temporary prototype “Environmental Protection Shelter” at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, one of a few mock-up models that Air Force Global Strike Command and the B-21 Program Office are testing to find the most effective and affordable option for the Long Range Strike Bomber, according to release.
“Environmental Protection Shelters help extend the life of the aircraft and reduce required maintenance by limiting UV exposure, limiting snow accumulation and melt, and limiting icing/de-icing operations experienced by the aircraft over time,” Col. Derek Oakley, the command’s B-21 Integration and System Management Office director, said in the release.
“These shelters also help us generate sorties more quickly by eliminating the need to always have to move aircraft in and out of hangars,” he said in the March 3 announcement.
Air Force Magazine reported last week that the shelter is 200 feet wide and 100 feet deep, which is also big enough for the B-2 Spirit bomber. While the B-2’s wingspan runs 172 feet, it’s unknown how long or wide the B-21 aircraft may be.
The Air Force has said deliveries of the Raider, manufactured by Northrop Grumman, will begin in the mid-2020s. But the service has been careful not to broadcast details in order to protect its technology.
The Air Force is weighing just how many prototype shelters to place at each of the chosen B-21 bases. In 2019, the service named Ellsworth to become the first operational B-21 base; it will also host the bomber’s first formal training unit. Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, is the service’s preferred alternative.
US Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers that deployed to Norway in late February have already demonstrated their reach in the air around Europe, and this week they tested their ability to put bombs on target in new surroundings.
On March 8, a bomber conducted Joint Terminal Attack Controller training with US Navy SEALs, US Marines, and Norwegian soldiers near Setermoen in the Norwegian Arctic.
JTACs, as they’re known, direct aircraft during close-air-support missions. For this training, US and Norwegian JTACs took position “on top of a mountain and quickly established communications” with the bomber to call in targets, a Marine Corps release said.
Joint JTAC training “demonstrates our commitment to building interoperability across military services and NATO allies,” Capt. Joe Roberts, a JTAC instructor, said in the release.
‘A little bit different’
US bombers deploy to Europe and train with Norwegian aircraft regularly, but the four B-1Bs that arrived in Norway on February 22 are the first US bombers to deploy there.
“There’s always something that’s just a little bit different” at a new airfield, Lt. Gen. Steven Basham, deputy commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, said during a March 5 briefing.
Changing scenery is particularly important for close air support, as working with JTACs or special-operations forces on the ground “allows that sensor on the ground to connect with the shooter, and in this case the bombers, to be able to practice dropping weapons in different environments,” Basham said.
“I can tell you, as a B-1 pilot, that not all terrain looks the same; it has a different look on radar,” Basham added. “Working with different individuals, there are always the unique challenges of accent or just the ability to make sure that we understand exactly what we’re doing.”
Marines rotated through Norway for on-the-ground training – including familiarization with the language barrier – from 2017 to late 2020, when the Corps said that training would move to an “episodic” model.
The Marines’ training focused on preparing for harsh Arctic conditions, which is also a goal of the B-1B deployment and of the JTAC training.
“Operating from Norway gives a very unique opportunity to operate in a cold-weather environment,” Basham said.
During the JTAC exercise, the B-1B landed at Bodo Air Force Station in the Norwegian Arctic for “warm-pit refueling,” in which the crew stays in the cockpit during refueling, allowing the bomber to get back in the air faster.
The bomber “does just fine in the cold weather,” Basham said. “It’s our great aviators and maintainers and support personnel who might not be as familiar with the rigors of the cold. Our Norwegian partners are helping us along in that.”
The bomber circled the airfield for 45 minutes as “dense snow” was cleared so it could land, and for ground troops, Norway’s Arctic “also poses many obstacles,” including frostbite and mountainous terrain, “which can cause electronic communications issues,” the Corps release said.
Sending a message
US and NATO activity in the Arctic comes amid heightened tensions with Russia, which has the world’s longest Arctic coastline and extensive economic interests there. Moscow has also increased its military activity in the Arctic.
The Norway deployment reflects several shifts in US strategy, including increased support for NATO in response to Russia’s 2014 incursion in Ukraine, which has led to “a gradual increase of bombers deploying to the UK at higher tempo and flying farther east and north,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told Insider.
Another shift is in Air Force bomber operations overseas, moving away from longer deployments in one place and toward shorter, more frequent deployments at more bases, which in Europe “has resulted in bomber operations to Iceland and now Norway, locations where the US did not deploy bombers even during the Cold War,” Kristensen said.
Moscow has already demonstrated its dismay about the B-1B deployment. On Friday, its Northern Fleet said carrier-based MiG-29K fighter jets had for the first time gone on “experimental combat duty” on the nearby Novaya Zemlya archipelago.
The Russians “seem to get the message” behind the increased US bomber deployments, Kristensen told Insider, “but there is so far no indication that it is causing them to back down.”
“It’s a lot more controversial in Norway, where officials have been busy explaining that the operations should not be seen as an increased threat to Russia,” Kristensen added.
Lt. Gen. Yngve Odlo, chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, stressed that point during the March 5 briefing.
“The communication is quite clear that this is what it is and it’s not an offensive operation at all,” Odlo said. “It’s normal military activity between two close allies. The only special thing is the new asset being deployed to Norway.”
Four US Air Force B-1B bombers arrived at Ørland Air Station in central Norway on February 22 for what officials say is a “historic” deployment meant to familiarize US airmen with new terrain.
While US bombers regularly train with Norwegian aircraft, they usually fly out of another major base in the region.
“This is the first time that we are generating flights in partnership with our close ally, Norway, as well as operating from Norwegian soil,” Lt. Gen. Steven Basham, deputy commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, told reporters Friday.
“There’s always something that’s just a little bit different” at a new airfield, Basham said.
Operating from Norway is also a chance to acclimate to a colder environment – a concern more for airmen than aircraft, Basham said – and to train more with their Norwegian counterparts.
The location allows “integrating probably a little bit more often than we might from other locations with their fighters [and] their navy,” Basham added. “Being on the ground with them before we operate and after we operate also creates a unique opportunity to learn.”
Lt. Gen. Yngve Odlo, chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, which oversees the country’s military operations, said the deployment is “an important part” of ensuring the US and Norway can work together in that region and its conditions.
US bombers are “a strategic asset, and it is highly important to both of us … to be able to have the right processes” to use them, “if needed,” Odlo said.
The B-1Bs in Norway flew their first Bomber Task Force mission on February 26, conducting “tactical integration” with a Norwegian F-35 and naval assets over the Norwegian Sea. (An initial press release said they trained in the eastern Barents Sea, much closer to Russia, but a spokesperson told Insider that was “a brief miscommunication.”)
In early March, two B-1Bs trained with Danish, Polish, Italian, and German fighters over the Baltic Sea and flew over the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – “a testament to the unmatched strength and capability of the NATO alliance,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa.
The US bomber crews’ training will also include working with joint terminal air controllers and special-operations forces to drop inert munitions, which “allows that sensor on the ground to connect with the shooter, and in this case the bombers, to be able to practice dropping weapons in different environments,” Basham said.
“I can tell you, as a B-1 pilot, that not all terrain looks the same,” Basham added. “It has a different look on radar, and working with different individuals, there are always the unique challenges of accent or just the ability to make sure that we understand exactly what we’re doing.”
The deployment has several weeks left, and the training doing is important not only for US airmen but also as a signal to allies, Basham said.
“The one thing you’re always thinking about if you’re ever required to employ in a location such as this … you typically don’t get a first chance to practice and then a second chance to succeed,” Basham said. “That’s why it’s so important to exercise every aspect of, in this particular case, what our B-1s can do, and certainly not just with Norway but many other countries so that if ever called upon, our allies are assured that we will be on target, first time.”
Broader tensions between NATO and Russia, heightened after Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, loom over the bomber deployment.
Norway takes its neighbor’s concerns about military activity into account, but Moscow still watches NATO operations in the region, especially bomber flights, warily.
Two weeks before the bombers arrived, Russia released footage of Russian Tu-160 bombers on “a planned flight” over the Barents, Greenland, and Norwegian seas. Days later, Russia said it would conduct missile tests in waters between the Barents and Norwegian seas, which was seen as a sign of displeasure over the bombers’ impending arrival.
On Friday, Odlo and Basham stressed that the deployment was normal military activity.
There are always “some reverberations from the political side of the house,” when Norway invites “close allies” to operate there, “which is normal,” Odlo said.
“There is no doubt that Russia probably looks at this as just what they would do,” Basham said. “As you’re looking to continue to improve your readiness, you want to make sure that you’re pushing to the limits of your capability.”
Basham reiterated that the deployment shouldn’t be seen as a threat but said it was a reflection of US capabilities.
“If someone were to take a message that you’re not restricted to one particular location, that would be a good message for them to perceive,” Basham said.
As reported in detail in the last few months, only two US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bombers have been restored out of the “Boneyard,” at the 309th AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, to be returned to front-line service: “Ghost Rider,” tail number 61-0007, and “Wise Guy,” tail number 60-0034.
Both aircraft had been retired and put on long term storage, where they were supposed to remain to be cannibalized for parts needed by other B-52Hs.
However, the plans changed and both BUFFs have been resurrected. After being mothballed for seven years in the desert “Ghost Rider” returned to service in 2015 with the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota. The second, “Wise Guy,” spent 10 years in the desert before being resurrected late last year.
The two “Lazarus” aircraft were regenerated at the Tinker Air Force Base’s Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, and it’s there that they are currently undergoing PDM (Programmed Depot Maintenance).
PDM is a complex process, that each Stratofortress bomber undergoes every four years. The airframe is stripped of its paint, so maintainers can assess if there are leaks or repairs are needed on the outer skin of the aircraft.
Then, the aircraft is almost completely disassembled and each part is inspected and all defects are fixed before they are rebuilt, repainted, carry out several Functional Check Flights before they are sent back to their home stations.
The aircraft return to active service as if they were almost brand new.
While “Ghost Rider” is currently undergoing routine PDM, “Wise Guy” is undergoing the heavy maintenance as the final part of a three-phase process to resurrect the aircraft and return it to the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, so that the number of B-52 bombers mandated by Congress is brought back to full strength at 76 aircraft.
The two B-52H Stratofortress bombers were parked nose-to-nose at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, on February 26, 2021, and this provided the opportunity to shoot some interesting photos that you can find in this article.