The Buzz

B-1, B-2 and B-52 Bombers All Descend on Guam in a Massive Show of Force

Talk about unusual. On Aug. 10, the U.S. Air Force announced it had sent its B-2 Spirit stealth bombers to join older, non-stealthy B-52 Stratofortresses and B-1 Lancers on Guam.

It’s an extraordinary show of force in the Pacific region, because for the first time ever, America has based all three heavy bomber types on the island at once.

Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary, described the deployments as providing a “valuable opportunity for our bomber crews to integrate and train together, as well as with our allies and partners through the region in a variety of missions.”

But James did not elaborate on just how unusual the arrangement actually is, nor did she expand on any deeper possible reasons for basing Spirits, Lancers and Stratofortresses at the same base at same time — all within striking distance of China and North Korea.

To be sure, the Pentagon regularly deploys far-reaching bombers to Andersen Air Force Base. However, North Korean nuclear and missile tests, Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea and the U.S. Air Force’s own plans to buy new, long-range weapons have given new weight to these deployments.

The latest deployment began on Aug. 6 when a group of B-1s arrived at Guam to take over from the B-52s. These aircraft were part of what the Pentagon calls the “Continuous Bomber Presence” mission, or CBP. The B-52s will head back to the continental United States at the end of August.

On Aug. 10, the B-2s landed for a separate but similar “bomber assurance and deterrence deployment,” or BAAD. We don’t know when the stealth bombers and their crews will return home to their base in Missouri.

Each bomber is considerably different from each other. The sleek B-1 can fly faster than the speed of sound while lugging nearly 40 tons of bombs in three internal weapons bays. The jet has a maximum range of nearly 6,000 miles.

The massive B-52 Stratofortress, however, flies much slower with a slightly smaller bomb load, but can travel almost 3,000 miles farther before needing to land. The B-2 Spirit holds much less ordnance, but the unique flying wing shape and other stealth features makes it virtually invisible to enemy radar.

Historically, both the CBP and BAAD missions have been linked to North Korean saber rattling.

On Jan. 29, 2002, then-president George W. Bush famously grouped the reclusive regime together with Iraq and Iran as the “Axis of Evil.” More than a year later, the Air Force sent two dozen B-1s and B-52s to Guam to form a new bomber wing at the base. In 2004, this wing took over the CBP mission.

The initial deployment “during spring 2003 was the first glimmer that a new bomber era was dawning at Andersen,” historians for the base’s 36th Wing wrote in a overview of operations from 2004 to 2006. “Parallels exist between the current bomber situation and Andersen’s heyday as a bomber base.”

War Is Boring obtained a copy of this historical review via the Freedom of Information Act.

During the Cold War, the United States based nuclear-armed B-52 bombers on Guam in case of war with the Soviet Union or China. While those wars thankfully never broke out, during the Vietnam War the lumbering Stratofortresses flew from the remote base to drop conventional bombs.

The newly arrived bombers in the 2000s practiced for a similarly wide range of missions — and war games from Australia and Alaska to Hawaii and the East China Sea. The Air Force gave the training flights colorful nicknames such as “Blue Lightning” and “Polar Lightning.”

Between August and September 2004, the aircraft took part in one of the massive annual war games the Pentagon runs with its counterparts in South Korea. Three months later, troops on the ground called in mock B-52 strikes based in part on information scooped up by U-2 spy planes, according to the 36th Wing history.

Separately, BAAD was supposed to provide similar shows of force on world-wide level. Still, the Pacific theater seemed to present some of the most likely potential threats.

However, Washington did send bombers on routine trips to the Middle East to show their displeasure of Iran’s nuclear program. After Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea region in February 2014, the flying branch began sending more and more B-52s for practice sessions in Europe.

But fast forward to the present and the Air Force clearly sees the Pacific as one of the most important domain for bombers. During an Aug. 10 press conference at the Pentagon, Gen. David Goldfein — the Air Force chief of staff — told a reporter he couldn’t imagine a similar situation happening at a base in the Middle East or Central Asia.

“I say that only based on what the bomber contributes to the joint fight,” said Goldfein, who previously ran the Air Force’s top command in the Middle East from 2011 to 2013. “I don’t see in the current operational tempo the requirement for more than one bomber squadron to be there at one time.”