B-52 passes the bomber torch
After two years pummeling ISIS, Taliban targets the B-1B Lancer will take the reigns
AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar – Following two years of (Minot Air Force Base) B-52 squadrons employing nearly 12,000 weapons on Islamic State and Taliban targets across U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, the venerable BUFF flew its last mission April 7 before turning over the bomber duty reins to the newly arrived B-1B Lancer.
Following approximately 1,850 missions on the Air Tasking Order, the BUFF took off one last time from Al Udeid Air Base’s sand-blown runway April 11 with no ordnance aboard and a 69th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron crew guiding it to a target far removed from the Middle East – Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota.
“The discipline and professionalism of the B-52 aircrew and maintenance has lived up to the legacy of the B-52 itself,” said Brig. Gen. Jason Armagost, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing commander at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. “Upgrades to communications and precision munitions delivery has only added to the legacy of this great bomber and the crews that operate it and maintain it deserve all the credit for the volume and effectiveness of the incredible airpower they delivered these last two years.”
(Armagost is a former commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB. He was commander from July 2014-July 2016.)
Throughout its two years in the AOR, deployed B-52 squadrons recognized multiple milestones and set new records. In June 2017, Minot’s 23rd Bomb Squadron marked its centennial by launching 400 consecutive B-52 missions without a maintenance delay, shattering the previous record that stood since Operation Linebacker II in 1972. Following its September 2017 arrival, the 69th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron carried the streak forward, surpassing the B-1’s 761-mission record by launching 834 consecutive B-52 missions without a maintenance cancellation.
“I have the highest respect for the maintainers who kept the Stratofortress airworthy,” said Lt. Col. Paul Goossen, 69th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron commander. “We could not perform the mission without the remarkable accomplishments that they have been able to do in keeping the weapons system flying.”
During the BUFF’s final seven months in the AOR, the 69th EBS flew nearly 6,000 combat hours and dropped more than 2,300 munitions on enemy targets in support of Operations Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, and Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan.
“Every day in support of partner and coalition ground forces, our B-52s delivered on-call, ready firepower – and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability,” said Goossen. “We maintained a 24/7 presence over the battlefield hunting ISIS and Taliban targets.
“Through our continuous ISR and precision strikes in support of the Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces’ ground scheme of maneuver, we helped contribute to the liberation of more than 7.7 million people and approximately 98 percent of territory formerly controlled by ISIS,” Goossen added.
Coalition air operations, including armed overwatch from the B-52, were instrumental in forcing ISIS into a small pocket into Syria’s Middle Euphrates River Valley.
“They are on the run,” explained Lt. Col. Daniel Lambert, 69th EBS director of operations. “We prevented an ISIS resurgence by sweeping the areas that have been retaken, preventing a reinfestation. The more we’ve been able to take them out, the harder it has been for them to recruit new forces because new recruits know the only thing awaiting them on the battlefield is death.”
Goossen noted that since his arrival last September, the effects of coalition forces on the ground have been noticeable.
“There’s considerably more civilian traffic on the streets than when we first arrived,” Goossen said. “The flow of goods and people in and out of cities is certainly noticeable. It’s as if ISIS turned off society like a spigot, but it’s now turned back on with ISIS no longer in control.”
In late November, U.S. Air Forces Central Command realigned its focus and airpower toward the fight in Afghanistan following progress made in defeating ISIS.
On Nov. 19, the 69th EBS became the first B-52 squadron in the U.S. Air Force to employ the conventional rotary launcher upgrade in combat operations. The upgrade enables a bomber to carry eight additional smart munitions inside its bomb bay, in addition to those that are carried on the wings. This upgrade increases the number of precision-guided munitions the aircraft can carry by approximately 50 percent.
During the opening night of a deliberate air campaign targeting Taliban narcotics production, the B-52 leveraged its CRL (Conventional Rotary Launcher) to deliver devastatingly precise firepower against ISIS’s primary revenue source. In subsequent missions against Taliban targets, the CRL led to new records in the number of precision guided munitions released in a single B-52 sortie. Since November, B-52s and other U.S. Air Forces Central Command strike assets have destroyed nearly 70 Taliban narcotics-related targets and removed tens of millions of dollars from their coffers, significantly impacting their ability to fund operations and forces.
“The BUFF did a fantastic job crushing ISIS on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria,” said Lt. Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command. “Over-the-horizon assets like the B-52 were instrumental to our success thanks to its unrefueled reach and extended loiter time over the battlefield. From OIR (Operations Inherent Resolve) to Afghanistan and even flexing to support occasional operations in Africa, the agility of this platform and the airmen who support it was invaluable. I lost count of the times the BUFF came home ‘Winchester’ after raining pain on our enemies.”
At the height of the fight against ISIS in summer 2017 and into the deliberate air campaign against the Taliban, B-52 aircrews lodged an average of 400-450 hours in a single six to seven-month deployment, nearly three times the traditional 300 hours flown annually by B-52 crews. Goossen noted that being able to work at such a high intensity for so long helped the crews establish a good battle rhythm that enabled the squadron’s greatest success.
While most members of the 69th EBS are now proficient combat veterans, prior to this deployment the vast majority had no deployment time on their watch.
“We leaned on some of our veterans very hard initially, but once everybody had a couple sorties under their belt, they rose to the level of performance that we needed to produce results,” Goossen said.
Staff Sgt. Brandon Van Bastian, a 69th EBS maintainer, said having a tangible purpose day-in and day-out is what drove the whole team.
“Coming to work, you know why you’re here,” Van Bastian said. “When you get these bombers in the air, you see them flying, you see them take off, and you know it’s going to do something important. We really made a difference in the fight. Overall, everyone is ecstatic being a part of the fight. Crewing a jet, you see what you can do, you see what your aircraft can do, and it gives you a sense of pride.”
“Some would say it’s a cold war relic,” Goossen said, “but it’s such a versatile airframe that it keeps being reinvented and it keeps showing its usefulness and its relevance in every war that America finds itself in.”
“There is heritage in every single tail we have,” Lambert reflected. “We have plenty of stories of multiple generations of people that have flown these bombers. You just climb in the hatch and you wonder about the heritage that accompanies each airplane. There will be people who climb in these tails years from now who will marvel at what their predecessors did back in 2016-2018.”
“You always hope you leave the place better than when you found it,” Goossen said. “I think we are leaving the theater better, with ISIS nearly defeated and almost no territory or people under their control anymore.”
As the B-52s depart the AOR (Area of Responsibility) and turn their attention to supporting requirements in the Pacific, the arrival of the upgraded B-1 ensures the U.S. Air Forces Central Command AOR bomber duty transfers seamlessly to the “Bone” (B-1 bomber).”