With ‘historic’ bomber flights on opposite sides of the planet, the US Air Force is sending a message to friends and foes

Air Force B-1B bomber Norway
A B-1B bomber at Ørland airport to train with Norwegian forces, March 13, 2021.

  • US Air Force bombers landed in Norway and India in February for history-making deployments.
  • Those operations reflect the increasing frequency and reach of the Air Force’s bomber operations.
  • Some observers are skeptical that the message the Air Force is trying to send is being received.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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.

Air Force B-1B bomber India
A B-1B taxis at Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru, India, February 3, 2021.

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.

On February 22, four B-1s landed in Norway for the first US bomber deployment to that country. Since then, they’ve operated around the region, including first-ever landings in Poland and in the Norwegian Arctic.

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.

Air Force B-1B bomber Norway
A B-1B in dense snow drifts at Ørland airport in Norway, March 7, 2021.

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.

Heightened tensions have led to more military activity in the European Arctic, however, and Norway has worked closely with its NATO allies as they have increased operations there.

“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.”

‘Part of the competitive space’

Air Force B-1B bomber India
US airmen perform post-flight maintenance on a B-1B after a flyover at Aero India 2021 in Bengaluru, February 3, 2021.

US bombers have kept a high pace of operations around the world, including the Middle East. In early March, B-52s flew “a multinational patrol mission” across that region, the fourth this year.

“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.

Like the rest of the US military, the bomber force has embraced dynamic force employment, aiming to be “strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable.” Ray also said his command has “completed work” on “bomber agile combat employment,” another concept focused on more dispersed operations.

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.

Air Force B-1B bomber Norway
US airmen greet US and Norwegian officials at Ørland Air Force Station in Norway, March 9, 2021.

“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.

In the Middle East, Iran is used to US military displays, and former officials have argued they aren’t worth the strain they put on the aircraft.

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.”

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