USAF sends six Boeing B-52H Stratofortress heavy bombers to the island of Diego Garcia – a militarised atoll in the British Indian Ocean Territory.
The deployment comes amidst escalating tensions in the Middle East, following a US air strike – authorised by President Donald Trump – that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force leader, Gen Qassem Soleimani, at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, on January 3.
A string of events led up to the air strike on Gen Qassem Soleimani. A rocket attack conducted by Iranian-backed militia forces on a coalition base in northern Iraq killed a US contractor and injured several American and Iraqi troops on December 27. The US retaliated with an air strike on Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah targets in Iraq and Syria on December 29. On New Year’s Eve, the militia and its supporters attacked the US embassy in the Green Zone, Baghdad – resulting in the deployment of 100 US Marines and an AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopter (the latter used to demonstrate a show of force).
Iran has since threatened to retaliate to the assassination. Since January 3, the Green Zone in Baghdad and Balad air base have been targeted with rocket attacks. The Iraqi parliament has called to expel foreign troops from within its borders and world leaders are calling for a de-escalation to the ongoing situation.
CNN first reported the B-52 deployment, citing that an unidentified Pentagon source said that the Cold War-era bombers were being sent to Diego Garcia because the atoll is out of range of Iranian missiles. The news report also stated that the move does not mean that US military operations have been ordered, saying: “The Pentagon has traditionally deployed long-range bombers and other aircraft as a sign of US force presence capability." However, the report added that the B-52Hs would be ready for “operations against Iran if ordered”, again citing its Pentagon source.
Diego Garcia is located just south of the equator in the centre of the Indian Ocean. The British-controlled atoll is 2,613nm (3,008 miles or 4,841km) away from Iran. It is also one of the few international bases with the ability to accommodate the B-52’s sheer size. Diego Garcia has also hosted B-52 operations on many occasions, having a heavy bomber presence there routinely for combat missions in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2014).
The bombers could stop off at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, UK – a base known for routine B-52 operations – on their journey to Diego Garcia. As of January 7, two aircraft have made the transatlantic crossing so far (using radio callsigns 'MYTEE 51' and 'MYTEE 52') – as seen in the tweet below.
A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) issued for RAF Fairford declares the base will be active until January 9 (see below).
However, MYTEE51 and MYTEE52 did not make the stop at the British base, opting instead to fly around the south of Spain and enter the Mediterranean Sea - a more direct route to the Middle East region. The aircraft were supported by tanker aircraft during the crossing but the exact location of the two bombers are currently unknown. Four more B-52Hs are scheduled to make the trip to Diego Garcia over the next couple of days.
The deployment of B-52s increases the number of US military assets within an effective operational combat range to the Middle East. In the last seven days, the US has engaged in a large-scale force mobilisation to the region. More than 40 USAF Boeing C-17A Globemaster IIIs and several Lockheed C-5M Galaxy heavy-lift strategic transports have ferried troops across, along with additional equipment, such as Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries, ground vehicles and helicopters. Additional tankers, transports and special operations aircraft have also deployed to the region, along with 12 United States Marine Corps (USMC) F/A-18C/D Hornets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 (VMFA-251) ‘Thunderbolts’, which will operate from Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, after departing Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, South Carolina on January 1 as part of the US’ Immediate Response Force. This confirmation of B-52s being involved in the US’ current forward deployment operation is the first report of USAF Global Strike Command bomber aircraft being involved in the mobilisation effort.
Follow the link to read more about the rising escalation, recent events and US mobilisation in recent days with added analysis from our military team. ANALYSIS: Iran/US escalation and mobilisation.
B-52 in detail
The first Boeing B-52As entered service with the US Air Force back in 1955 and eventually some 744 aircraft were delivered in eight major versions. The B-52H was the ultimate variant and 102 of these ‘BUFFs’ (Big Ugly Fat Fellas) were handed over by October 1962. Today 76 B-52Hs remain in service with two bomb wings, with a further dozen kept in storage at Davis-Monthan AFB. Under the terms of the New START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, the US is limited to just 66 nuclear-capable bombers comprising 46 B-52Hs and 20 B-2As. To adhere to those limits the ability to deliver nuclear weapons was removed from 30 operational bombers and 13 that are stored.
The fleet of 76 B-52Hs is flown by nine USAF operational and test squadrons. The 2nd BW at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and the 5th BW at Minot AFB, North Dakota share the fleet of 44 combat-coded bombers. Four operational squadrons each operate 11 combat-coded aircraft and have two airframes that are carried as Backup Aircraft Inventory (BAI). The fleet includes two bombers that support ongoing testing with AFMC and 18 that are assigned to an AFRC squadron that is tasked as the Formal Training Unit (FTU).
The Stratofortress remains the longest-serving combat aircraft in US history and according to the 2018 ‘Bomber Vector’, the USAF aims to retain 75 B-52Hs until around 2050 to remain operational alongside the new Northrop Grumman B-21A Raider. The bomber’s weapons payload of more than 70,000lb (31,751kg) permits the B-52H to carry the most diverse range of nuclear and conventional weapons of any combat aircraft in the inventory.
In order to keep these old workhorses credible a $2.2-bn package of upgrades will include new engines and an advanced radar. The air force considers the B-52H’s TF33 turbofan engines to be ‘inefficient and [of] limited capability compared to modern commercially available engines’ as well as being ‘costly and manpower-intensive to maintain’. The USAF plans to swap the TF33s with eight engines of a similar size, weight, and thrust rating, retaining the existing nacelles and minimizing the need for structural modifications. Now known as the Commercial Engine Replacement Program (CERP), the new engines will increase reliability and provide a 20-to-40 per cent improvement in fuel consumption and range. Boeing will act as lead integrator, and is conducting risk reduction studies to fully define engine and aircraft requirements. The program calls for the installation of eight engines and associated electronics without redesigning or replacing existing wing structure.
More details on the current B-52H fleet can be found in Key Publishing’s USAF Air Power Yearbook 2020 - now on sale here.