SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Carrying the largest payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the Air Force inventory, the multi-mission B-1B Lancer is the backbone of America's long-range bomber force, and is flown here by the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron.
"We have a lot of coalition forces on the ground in Afghanistan," said Lt. Col. Seth Graham, the 34th EBS commander. "They're able to focus on executing their various missions because of the air support we provide 365, 24/7."
The colonel said it's hard to put into words the importance of what his unit does, but instead explained in a vignette the importance of his units air support to the nation's ground forces.
"On one occasion my crew arrived overhead of U.S. ground forces pinned down in a compound receiving small arms fire from multiple directions," Graham said. "They tell the crew they are running low on ammo and need immediate air support. My crew employed a single 500 pound JDAM in close proximity to the friendly forces which forced the enemy to break contact, and allowed our guys to walk out of that compound and back to their base. On the way out they told my guys 'thanks ... you saved our lives today!' We make life and death decisions every day ... that's the importance of what we do."
This air support wouldn't be possible, however, without all the work going on behind the scenes in the squadron.
"We are tasked by the air tasking order from the Combined Air and Space Operations Center and in turn our mission planning cell (MPC) puts together everything the aircrew will need to be successful," said Maj. Aaron Mate, the 34th EBS assistant director of operations. "The mission planning cell is comprised of a chief of operations, two flyers, intelligence and an Army liaison officer."
The MPC collects and processes data, integrating it into flight plans and mission folders that include all the information necessary for B-1 crews to dynamically support every regional command in Afghanistan on a given sortie. A pre-flight crew is then used to ready the aircraft. They run pre-flight checks to get the jet mission-ready for the crew who will fly the mission. The pre-flight crew also secures a secondary aircraft in the event the primary encounters a malfunction prior to takeoff.
"We want our number of takeoffs to equal our landings," said Capt. Brandon Packard, a 34th EBS weapons systems officer. "So we go through these checks for the mission crew in order to, one, streamline the process and, two, for the safety and security of our crews and jets. We take this job just as seriously as flying a mission."
Once the jet is ready to go and the mission crew has completed their pre-mission briefs, it's time for takeoff.
The roles of pre-flight and mission crews are rotated as directed by their aviation resources managers and policy in order to manage fatigue.
"We can't have all the fun," Mate said jokingly. "Per AFI, we limit our crews to a 16-hour day -- 13 hours in the air and three hours of mission preparation."
The 16-hour rule can be waived by the operations group commander up to 24-hours to accommodate longer missions as directed by higher headquarters.
Every crew is composed of an aircraft commander, copilot and two weapons systems officers. With an intercontinental range and the ability to carry up to 48,000 pounds of munitions at 900-plus mph, the B-1 can rapidly deliver massive quantities of precision and non-precision weapons against any adversary, anywhere in the world, at any time.
"We are one of the most flexible close-air support airframes in the Air Force," said Capt. Nikki Jansen, a 34th EBS pilot. "The B-1's speed and superior handling characteristics allow it to seamlessly integrate in mixed force packages. These capabilities, when combined with its substantial payload, diverse targeting system, long loiter time and survivability, make the B-1B a key element of any joint or coalition strike force."
The aircrews and B-1s are deployed here from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., and Dyess AFB, Texas.
"We get the greatest sense of satisfaction when the ground crew's joint terminal attack controller radios in thanking us for keeping them safe," Graham said.
During the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom, eight B-1s dropped nearly 40 percent of the total tonnage delivered by coalition air forces. This included nearly 3,900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The B-1 continues to be deployed today, flying missions daily in support of continuing operations.