The U.S. Air Force flew its three strategic bombers -- the B-1B Lancer, B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress -- in what was billed as the first-ever integrated bomber operation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
Several B-1s flew from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota to participate in U.S. Pacific Command's "Continuous Bomber Presence" mission, according to the Air Force. They will soon replace B-52s that deployed to Andersen from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. Meanwhile, three B-2s arrived in theater from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
As the release noted, "though all the aircraft have deployed independently to the U.S. Pacific Command's area of responsibility in the past, this was the first time all three bombers flew a formation pass over Andersen Air Force Base, dispersed and then simultaneously conducted operations in the South China Sea and Northeast Asia."
In a statement seemingly aimed at China, which has built reinforced hangars and runways on the disputed Spratly Islands in the region, Brig. Gen. Douglas Cox, commander of the 36th Wing, said in the release, "This mission demonstrated the U.S. commitment to supporting global security and our ability to launch a credible strategic defense force."
B-2s (and F-16 fighters) are capable of carrying B61 nuclear bombs, while the B-52s are designed to carry AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles. The Air Force wants to develop a new nuclear cruise missile, the Long Range Standoff Weapon, as a replacement to the AGM-86B beginning around 2030. The B-1, meanwhile, is no longer equipped for nuclear missions.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., China hasn't yet deployed military aircraft to the islands, "but the rapid construction of reinforced hangars at all three features indicates that this is likely to change. Each of the three islets will soon have hangar space for 24 fighter-jets plus 3-4 larger planes."
Check out some of the photos from the exercise: