As the global community continues to battle with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the military machine of countries around the world have continued to adapt and overcome the various challenges while maintaining full operational readiness.

For the USAF it continues to be business as usual for their long-range bomber task force as the US military machine continues to project global power and enhance partnerships and collaboration with its allies.

For the military radio monitor, the long range bomber sorties provide an excellent insight into projecting global air power and the amount of planning and preparation that goes into each sortie. The missions also provide excellent training opportunities for all personnel involved and enhancing interoperability between allied nations, aircraft and command and control systems.

And with every long-range bomber missing comes the one key essential element – air-to-air refuelling. For UK-based monitors we are extremely lucky to have the strategically located 100th Air Refuelling Wing based at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. This unit plays a crucial role in the European theatre of operations and for sharp-eared radio monitors, KC-135s launching from Mildenhall is often a good indication of  inbound activity.

The first long-range sortie of May by US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) took place on Thursday 7th May with the coordinated mission of two B-2 Spirit stealth bombers from Whiteman AFB, two B-52H Stratofortresses from Minot Air Force Base and two B-52Hs from Barksdale Air Force Base spanning the US European Command and US Indo-Pacific Command areas.

This first sortie of long-range bombers and support aircraft was used to showcase the US ability to conduct synchronized strategic deterrence anywhere in the world with a ready, lethal force despite the current challenges of COVID-19.

The 100th ARW launched from RAF Mildenhall to provide air-to-air support for at least one of the B-52s deployed on this global power mission. [Pictured below: Credit USAF]

On Monday 11th May the second long-range sortie was launched from the USA with a single-shop B-1B Lancer supersonic strategic bomber from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

Sharp-eared interceptors picked up the Oceanic Clearance for BONE 21 working Gander Centre as: PORGY > CUDDY > 5830N50W > 60N40W > 61N30W > 61N20W > ATSIX > AKIVO

And just after 0930 hours, interceptors in Suffolk picked up QID857 flight climbing out of RAF Mildenhall with the two aircraft identified as QID 857 – KC-135 61-0315 – Mode-S AE0237 and QID858 – KC-135 57-2605 – Mode-S AE04FB. Following their departure the two-shop routed out over the North Sea to RV with BONE 21.

This sortie also included integration and interoperability training with the Royal Danish Air Force F-16s overlying Bornholm Island, Denmark and Polish Air Force F-16s and MiG-29s overflying Warsaw, Poland and an overflight of Latvia and Lithuania.

As BONE 21 routed over Northern Scotland, Typhoon aircraft 1(F) Squadron from RAF Lossiemouth also launched to escort the bomber over the North Sea as BONE 21 conducted air-to-air refuelling prior to it’s oceanic crossing back to the USA.

One of the Typhoon pilots flying the sortie was Major “NEWTL” Campbell, a US Marine Corps Exchange Officer with 1(F) Squadron.  He said:

“It was fantastic for 1(F) Squadron to escort the B-1B Lancer through UK airspace after its mission in the Baltic region.It was particularly humbling for me to play my part in this mission, escorting an American bomber in an RAF Typhoon as it flew through NATO airspace.”

On Tuesday 19th May the third long-range bomber sortie would take place albeit with a late night departure from the USA and UK-based activities taking place during the early hours of the following morning.

On this occasion, a two-ship formation of B-1Bs were intercepted refuelling with SPUR 81 flight over the eastern US before entering oceanic airspace for their transatlantic crossing with the following routing.

BONE 31 FLIGHT CLEARED OCEANIC VIA PROGY – N5830W05000 – N6000W04000 – N6100W030000 – N6100W02000 – ATSIX – AKIVO – FL230-240 MACH 0.72

For interceptors in Suffolk, it was a very early start with the distinct sound of 12 jet engines roaring into life as QID 237 / QID 238 / QID 239  started up and departed into the darkness to head north to RV with BONE 31 flight over northern Scotland.

The RAF Typhoons from RAF Lossiemouth would also be airborne once again this time supported by MADRAS 702, an RAF Voyager Tanker from Brize Norton as well as an E-3 Sentry AWACS – callsign NATO 81 – launching from RAF Waddington to provide airborne command and control. A further two KC-135s calling as QID 862 and 863 would launch from RAF Mildenhall shortly after 0600hrs routing towards Norway to support BONE 31 flight in their return leg back to the USA.

As the only permanent air refuelling component in the European and African areas of responsibility, it is up to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing and the 351st Air Refuelling Squadron to provide global air refuelling and combat support to our sister services and allies. 

Since its activation on Feb. 1, 1992, the wing has provided critical in-flight refuelling for all U.S. and NATO forces in Europe and Africa. RAF Mildenhall continues to be the leader in providing response capabilities that enable America’s global vigilance, reach and power across the globe.

“Long-range bomber training missions strengthen our steadfast partnerships with allies across both Europe and Africa and showcase our ability to respond globally from anywhere,” said U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, Gen. Jeff Harrigian. “This mission further enhances our interoperability capabilities by taking ground-breaking steps to incorporate our partners to generate seamless operations.”

As RAF Mildenhall is tasked with high-priority mission sets, Airmen provide not only refuelling but also aircraft maintenance and logistics support to remain one of the U.S.’s most visible assets tasked with protecting U.S. interests in Europe.

“Air Refuelling is the critical component in global reach,” Slazinik stated. “It allows for aircraft to travel farther, intelligence and reconnaissance to be gathered longer, fighter aircraft to move across vast oceans and allows for the rapid mobility of personnel and supplies around the globe.

“We allow our Air Force and national leadership to consider actions on a global scale and make a strategic impact within hours. The 100th and 351st work hard every day to strengthen alliances and sharpen skills for missions that lie ahead.”

Following the recent announcement surrounding the US withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, it is possible the demonstration of global air power will increase as the US military machine continues to flex its muscles which always brings with it exciting listening opportunities for military radio interceptors.

Given one of the main mission objectives of these recent sorties is interoperability with allied nations, we can’t help but wonder if these aircraft would have been deployed to operate from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire if we weren’t gripped by a global pandemic.

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