The U.S. military insists the bomber deployments don’t have anything to do with Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and Moscow’s support for Ukrainian separatists. But American officers have implied that Moscow should take note.
“The training and integration of strategic forces demonstrates to our nation’s leaders and our allies that we have the right mix of aircraft and expertise to respond to a variety of potential threats and situations,” said Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
According to aviation reporter David Cenciotti, the first B-2 to arrive was Spirit of Indiana, using the call sign “Death 11.” The radar-evading bomber flew two low approaches before landing at RAF Fairford. Spirit of Louisiana, flying as “Death 12,” skipped the low approaches and landed directly, Cenciotti wrote.
America’s 1960s-vintage B-52s and the much more modern—and expensive—B-2s are new teammates. In April, the Air Force combined the bombers in a new kind of strike formation.
Two B-2s and two B-52s took off in Missouri and Louisiana, respectively, and flew 8,000 miles to a Hawaii bombing range in order to practice coordinated attacks. B-52s are optimized for standoff strikes using cruise missiles. The B-2s normally get in closer to drop satellite-guided bombs.
The April training mission included a “low approach,” according to the Air Force. Bombers traditionally fly at high altitude to maximize their fuel efficiency and the range of their weaponry. The advent of deadly surface-to-air missiles during the Cold War briefly forced the giant warplanes to fly lower as a means of avoiding radar detection.
The Air Force is reviving the practice as it prepares to battle well-equipped foes such as Iran, China … and Russia.
There are good reasons to expect the B-2s’ stay in the U.K. to be short. With their sensitive radar-absorbing coatings, the $2-billion-apiece stealth bombers are difficult to maintain away from their home base.
The U.S. possesses just 20 of the batwing bombers. At any given time, three of the B-2s are at an Air Force depot in California for repairs and upgrades. Another is at Edwards Air Force Base in California for tests. The rest are at the Missouri base, where routine maintenance keeps around half in their hangars.
The B-2’s official readiness rate is 47 percent, compared to 75 percent and 58 percent respectively for the older B-52 and B-1 bombers. The flying branch has 63 1980s-vintage B-1s and 76 B-52s dating from the ’60s—for a total bomber force roughly as big as Russia’s and China’s.