Big Changes Are Coming to Air Force Bomber Missions. Here's Why

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B-1B Lancer assigned to the 28th Bomb Wing takes off from Ellsworth Air Force Base
A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 28th Bomb Wing takes off from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., April 28, 2020, to support a Bomber Task Force mission in the Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Nicolas Erwin)

Col. Beth Makros is commander of the Air Force’s 608th Air Operations Center.

Change has come to the way the U.S. Air Force provides bomber support to geographical combatant commands. Within the last 40 days, Air Force Global Strike Command bombers have launched from the continental U.S. (CONUS) to support global operations into European and Indo-Pacific theaters on eight higher-headquarters missions, with 21 bomber aircraft flying missions ranging from 24 to more than 32 hours.

To be fair, Air Force bombers have flown long-duration missions for decades, but now launching bomber missions from home stations into the South China Sea, Arctic Region or Black Sea have become a weekly occurrence. The transition from Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) to the CONUS-based Bomber Task Force (BTF) approach provides an opportunity for long-range strike to demonstrate its flexibility to meet geographic combatant commanders' objectives while saving critical operational funds. At the nexus of these missions sits a team of long-range strike experts who serve as the connective tissue across multiple air operations centers to ensure mission success.

The integration and execution of airpower across geographic boundaries is second nature to long-range strike aircraft planners and aircrew. Missions are planned, coordinated and executed by a small but agile team in the 608 Air Operations Center at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. The mission of the 608th AOC is to execute operational command and control while coordinating global support for BTF missions. Those missions provide national decision-makers and geographic combatant commanders flexible long-range strike options without having the logistics tail of deploying aircraft and airmen into theater.

While flawless execution gives the appearance of simplicity, these sorties are anything but. They require a Herculean effort of detailed planning and coordination between multiple AOCs, often crossing into other nations' airspace, requiring diplomatic clearances and international airspace reservations. In execution, if one piece of the plan goes awry, it can have significant implications on the planned strategic message to our adversaries, as well as allies and partners.

The planning and execution required to execute BTF missions is like a well-choreographed dance composed of a full spectrum of subject-matter experts supporting the 608th AOC. Imagine a 34-hour BTF mission that launches from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, heading northwest over the Aleutian Islands, down along the coast of Japan, through the Luzon Straits, and into the South China Sea, and then returning via the same routing, with zero stops in between. That takes a lot of fuel. Air Mobility Command's 618th AOC guarantees tankers are at the right place at the right time to offload the necessary fuel. But there's more.

These sorties also require multi-domain support provided by the 614th AOC at the Combined Space Operations Center to coordinate long-range communication coverage, and the 16th Air Force's 616th AOC to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage and meet cyber requirements. While the 608th AOC collaborated with Pacific Air Force's 613th AOC to launch two B-1 Lancers for the 34-hour mission to the South China Sea, its planners were, in parallel, coordinating with the U.S. Air Forces Europe 603rd AOC for missions into the United States European Command area of responsibility.

These missions included a Baltic Sea area munitions drop and integration with Estonian ground forces, air intercept practice with NATO fighters, and refueling with U.S. and allied tankers. These missions demonstrated that bombers are unconstrained by geography. It is not uncommon for multiple BTF missions to be airborne in different AORs at the same time.

Because BTF missions operate across multiple combatant commands, we continue to evolve and sharpen this capability. Unencumbered by the large logistics tail necessary for long-term deployments, BTFs afford this same capability at a fraction of the cost. They introduce the flexibility needed for a successful deterrent mission while continuing to grow mission readiness at home. Lessons learned from a BTF mission into the Baltic region can be applied to missions into the USINDOPACOM, USAFRICOM, or USCENTCOM regions.

By operating from home, long-range strike bombers are better postured to quickly employ under the Dynamic Force Employment model, rapidly providing long-range strike to any and all combatant commands. There is no other nation that can match this capability.

The U.S. Air Force has proven its ability to support any combatant command with the rapid employment of airpower within hours of tasking, in accordance with the National Defense Strategy. Eighth Air Force bombers will continue to deliver overwhelming force anywhere, anytime, in support of American interests abroad and those of our allies and partners.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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