B-2 stealth bombers and stealth F-35 joint strike fighters are headed to the Arctic together for joint patrols, a combination likely to bring new tactical dimensions to ongoing deterrence initiatives and demonstrate forward projections of power in the region.
We don’t hear as often about B-2s and F-35s operating together but rather see either B-2 empowered Bomber Task Forces or F-35 armed Theater Sustainment Packages, however combining the two certainly introduces some interesting dynamics.
A B-2 bomber from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., flew from Lajes Field, Portugal to connect with four Norwegian Air Force F-35s involved in an ongoing NATO initiative called Icelandic Policing Mission. The bomber-fighter integration is referred to by the Air Force as “High North” interoperability training.
"The aircraft (B-2 & F-35) carried out complex operations at night after beginning the mission from three different bases on two continents," the U.S. Air Force said in a press release. "The sortie provided an opportunity for the aircraft to advance their cross-platform data-sharing capabilities, improving 5th generation interoperability."
It is not surprising that the Air Force might seek to connect and integrate the stealth fighter with the stealth bomber in light of the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management Program which seeks to enable broader multi-node combat connectivity across the force and throughout all the services as part of the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control effort.
Drawing upon their respective attributes, a B-2 bomber could certainly hold fixed installations placed on the Arctic by potential rivals, many of which are likely to contain weapons and other technologies of concern. An F-35 could certainly introduce speed for close air support, dog-fighting or air-to-air combat capability should that be needed and, perhaps most of all, bring an impactful measure of surveillance to the equation.
An F-35’s drone-like sensor system could, it seems clear, identify air threats of potential concern to a B-2 and also, by virtue of operating closer to the ground, operate as a lower-altitude sensor node for a B-2 needing to hold targets at risk. An F-35’s Electro-Optical targeting system, for example, is perhaps better positioned than a B-2 to identify rival aircraft potentially encroaching upon its mission scope. Also, it might be important to not overlook the relevance of stealth, as both a B-2 bomber as well as an F-35 are naturally able to operate with a lower, and much less detectable radar signature. While the exact extent of air defense technologies being placed by rivals in the Arctic may not be fully known, both Russia and China are known to operate mobile air-defenses and the airspace is increasingly becoming more contested.
This kind of a show of force, coupled with B-1 bombers also being placed near the region, reveals what could be interpreted as a stepped-up Arctic posture. It also does not seem surprising that the Pentagon would seek to enlarge its military presence in areas along the Northern Sea Route bordering Russia to introduce a countervailing power presence. Russian ambitions in the Arctic are well known and clearly of great concern to the Pentagon, given that Russia operates more ice breakers and has larger amounts of territory bordering the Arctic area.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.