A pair of B-2 Spirit stealth bombers have been dispatched by the Air Force to join three B-52s at the Royal Air Force Base Fairford, in the wake of Russia doubling its number of long range strategic bomber flights along the U.S. coastline and cruising over NATO ally airspace.
Russian bombers crossed into the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) — a transition area around U.S. airspace where America does not have sovereignty but keeps closely monitors — at least 10 times in 2014, twice the average of five incursions a year since 2006, according to NORAD. They have also intruded the airspace buffer zones of NATO allies overseas including Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands.
U.S. defense and congressional officials attribute the increase in flights to rising tensions between Washington and Moscow since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
While at RAF Fairford, the two B-2 Spirit stealth bombers — call signs DEATH 11 and 12 — practiced key capabilities including aerial refueling, Engine Running Crew Changes (ERCCs) and hot pit fuel training before returning to Whiteman Air Force Base in the United States. Defense news reports indicate the U.S. is preparing to also fly B-52s to Sweden for an aerial exercise, and another two pair of B-52 Stratofortress bombers over the far reaches of the Arctic North Sea high above the polar ice cap where the Kremlin is increasing Russian naval presence and dispatching 6,000 military personnel.
According to online military newsletter Foxtrot Alpha, the Arctic affair now dubbed “Polar Growl” had three objectives: to test and how U.S. Strategic Command would approach two separate missions in two different areas at the same time, to inter-operate with allied air forces dealing with foreign intercepts, and to give B-52 crews experience flying over extreme northern areas.
“These flights, demonstrating the credible and flexible ability of our strategic bomber force in internationally-recognized flight information regions, are the culmination of months of planning and coordination … They are one of many ways we demonstrate interoperability, compliance with national and international protocols, and due regard for the safety of all aircraft sharing the air space,” Foxtrot Alpha quoted STRATCOM head Adm. Cecil Haney as saying.
The military newsletter described the admiral’s quote as “a slap in the face to the Russians who have become increasingly brazen when it comes to their near constant long-range strategic aircraft drills, even turning off their transponders when flying in dense international airspace.”
The aerial chess game has continued amidst the recent G-7 summit in Germany, which excluded Russian President Vladimir Putin as a sign of protest over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea.
“The G-7 is making it clear that is necessary we stand ready to impose additional significant sanctions against Russia,” President Obama said at the summit. Mr. Obama added that the Kremlin was facing a crossroads in which it must decide whether or not it wants to destroy the Federation’s economy just to fulfill Mr. Putin’s dreams of “recreating the glories of the Soviet empire.”
The aerial war exercises near American and Russian airspace have developed into a type of Cold War chess game. Since 2012, there have been at least two dozen incidents where a Russian bomber skirted U.S. or NATO airspace.
Last year, the U.S. dispatched an RC-135 spy plane above international waters in the Baltic Sea, an area near and dear to the Russian Navy. According to the New York Times, the American spy plane had to quickly reroute its course for Sweden after it was pursued by Russian warplanes.
“The aircraft commander, acting in a professional and safe manner, maneuvered the aircraft to avoid a possible encounter by Russian aircraft,” U.S. European Command said in a statement.
The military denies that dispatching the Stealth B2s to England were in response to the Russian bombers.
“These flights demonstrate the ability of U.S. bomber forces to provide a credible, flexible and always-ready capability to respond to a variety of potential threats and situations, both conventionally and strategically, when called upon to do so,” USSTRATCOM Public Affairs Current Operations Chief Lt. Col. Martin L. O’ Donnell told The Washington Times.