US Air Force B-52 bombers in Europe are staying active, but less 'in your face,' as Russia wages war on Ukraine
- Air Force B-52s were deployed to England in mid-February for a "long-planned" bomber task force mission.
- They have been active since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, training with allies and partners around Europe.
US bombers regularly fly over Europe and the Pacific, but in recent years they have more often flown over sensitive regions, such the Barents Sea north of Russia, the Sea of Okhotsk off of Russia's Far East, and the Black Sea near Crimea.
"What we saw after 2014 up through the Trump years was that the number of bombers that participated gradually increased, and they stayed longer and their operations started moving farther east and north, closer to Russian borders into areas where we really haven't seen bombers operate since the 1980s," Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told Insider.
That trend "continued to increase up through last year," Kristensen said, "but this year with this bomber operation it's been, I think, different in the sense that we haven't seen these in-your-face kind of operations that we've seen in previous years."
The B-52s arrived at the Royal Air Force's Fairford base, northwest of London, with supporting equipment and personnel on February 10 to conduct a Bomber Task Force mission.
Their "long-planned" deployment is "a regularly scheduled US European Command and
In February, the bombers flew over the North Sea to train with aircraft from other militaries, flew to the Middle East to demonstrate the "ability to seamlessly operate across" regions, and landed in the Czech Republic to practice "quick-turn sortie regeneration."
In March, the bombers have flown over Central Europe and countries bordering the Black Sea for close-air-support training with troops on the ground. In recent days, they have flown to the Arctic to participate in the NATO-led Cold Response exercise in Norway and in the NORAD-led exercise Noble Defender over Canada.
"BTF rotations give us a critical opportunity to integrate and train with our allies and partners, especially during this difficult time." Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces Europe-Africa, said in a March 4 release.
What's notable is where the bombers haven't been going, Kristensen said: "They haven't flown over the Baltic states. They haven't flown up to the Kola Peninsula where there are Russian strategic bases. They hadn't flown in along the northern coast of Russia, which is vulnerable to [aerial] penetration obviously, and we haven't seen Black Sea operations."
"There are obviously reasons for that — because of the war going on — but nonetheless I think instead what we've seen are the bombers operating in sort of an overall more pulled-back training operation," Kristensen told Insider.
'Still very busy'
The BTF mission series began in 2018. Since then, US bombers have deployed to Europe and to the Pacific several times a year to operate for weeks at a time.
US Strategic Command, which oversees the US's nuclear-capable bombers, conducted 127 BTF missions in 2021, the head of the command, Adm. Charles Richard, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in written testimony this month.
Bomber task force missions "remain the iconic example" of the US military's dynamic force employment construct, "and potential adversaries watch these missions closely," Richard wrote.
Under dynamic force employment, the military uses its forces "to send strategic signals, reinforce deterrence, and support whole-of-government messaging," a Strategic Command spokesperson told Insider.
In the early months of the Biden administration, "there was a continuation of the style" of BTF operations seen in previous years, Kristensen told Insider.
"What I think made the difference was that there was a point here when things started heating up in the east that Biden or the White House began to suddenly pay attention to the exercises," Kristensen said.
Kristensen pointed to a November report about the White House asking the Pentagon for the details and justifications of its operations to deter Russia. A Biden administration official told The Washington Post that it sought "full visibility" into previous deterrence activities in Europe in order to inform future missions.
The White House National Security Council didn't respond when asked about that review or its effect on bomber operations. US Air Forces Europe-Africa didn't respond when asked if fighting in Ukraine had affected the current BTF mission.
There is no set number of annual BTF missions, the Strategic Command spokesperson said, adding that dynamic force employment allows the Pentagon "to maintain the readiness and flexibility of our forces so that we can rapidly respond to emergent requirements in support of US national-security objectives."
Kristensen said that with heightened tensions in Europe and with nuclear-armed militaries operating in close proximity, a judicious approach to such exercises was warranted.
The US "doesn't need to take it to the strategic nuclear level" to demonstrate support for NATO, Kristensen said.
The 127 exercises last year mean the US bomber fleet is "still very busy, but it's not busy in-your-face," Kristensen added. "That's important to distinguish — that you maintain capability, you maintain proficiency, but you don't have to go up and whack it in the nose of an adversary."
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