Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | September 10th 2016
The United States Air Force (USAF) have deployed three strategic bombers to RAF Fairford in support of the annual Ample Strike training exercise. For the third time running, the Czech Republic will take the lead and host up to eighteen allied nations who will work alongside each other to train Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and Close Air Support (CAS) units on the battlefield.
RAF Fairford, home to the world famous Royal International Air Tattoo, may seem like a fairly sedate standby airfield for most of the year but when required, the base can be turned into a fully operational hub in very little time. Fairford played a vital role for the USAF throughout the 1990s and early 2000s when B-52s were based there during the Gulf War and Iraq War. The last couple of years have seen a return to form with further bomber deployments but it’s all in the aid of training on an international scale.
The flying schedule for Ample Strike 2016 began on September 5th and will run for 11 days. To get an idea of what the exercise entails, and specifically what sort of missions the B-52 will be tasked with, Aviation Highlights spoke with Captain James Bresnahan:
“The B-52’s primary mission is to provide Close Air Support training to JTACs and Forward Air Controllers out on the battlefield. US bombers participate in international exercises fairly frequently. Providing CAS training like this is now fairly commonplace. We operate with our allied nations using joint procedures. Ample Strike ensures that all the controllers get training on the ground, that operational readiness is increased and international interoperability is improved.”
The B-52 Stratofortress was designed and built by Boeing during the early 1950s when the USAF submitted a requirement for a long-range, subsonic bombing platform. Aviation has come a long way since the aircraft’s entry into service, so how exactly is a bomber of this age still relevant today?
“This particular aircraft started on the production line in 1960 and has since had multiple avionics, communications and weapons upgrades. We’re able to carry the widest variety of weapons in the US inventory as well as the most current and updated weapons. Our upgraded communications platform allows line of sight and beyond line of sight comms to take place. The equipment that crews are trained on also have access to the very latest tactics, techniques and procedures to keep the entire process up-to-date and relevant to today’s global mission. We plan to fly the B-52 for at least an another 25-30 years with continual updates to follow. Any advancements in weaponry within the US military will continue to find its way on to the B-52.”
There’s no doubt that the B-52 has displayed exceptional endurance and assurance throughout it’s time in service. Some may see these deployments and exercises as, perhaps, a little antagonising but in reality that’s not the case. Large-scale complex international exercises like Ample Strike allow allied nations to strengthen their relationships and learn from each other on the battlefield.
“The missions that we’re executing during Ample Strike are carried out by a single aircraft but we may be working with multiple ground parties throughout the exercise. We’ll take off from Fairford, complete the scenario over in the Czech Republic and then return to land here. Our scenarios are CAS based and the training is provided to ground forces in order to simulate the purpose of the JTAC and FACs. On-time, on-demand fire support and air support is delivered as required, coordinating point of contact on the ground to enable safe and effective support to ground forces. I suspect that a lot of these JTACs have never worked with American bombers so it’s a new experience for them and provides brand new training on an aircraft type they’ve likely not worked with in the field before.”
With so many nations participating both in the air and on the ground, you might think that it’s difficult to debrief on the missions that have been completed but once the crews have landed back at RAF Fairford, a series of in-depth ‘feedback’ sessions begin over the telephone and via email.
Believe it or not, this is the very first time that B-52s and B-1s have deployed to the same airfield in support of an international exercise.
Although the two types have been deployed together, they’re not actually working together in the air. Aviation Highlights spoke exclusively to Colonel Denis Heinz, Commander 489th Bomb Group, to find out more:
“On the face of it we’re essentially carrying out the same mission; helping train the JTACs and the FACs but we’re flying on alternating days. For what we’re doing out here and the missions that we’re flying in support of Ample Strike, the B-52 and B-1 are basically the same. They both have targeting pods and both are carrying the same simulated weapons. The main real difference is that the B-1 is supersonic and we still do a lot of low level training. On Monday for example, as part of our scenario, we conducted a show of force. We dropped down to about 1000ft and increased our speed to about 500 knots; it’s a very effective way of establishing yourself on the battlefield and something that the B-52 simply isn’t capable of.”
Colonel Heinz flew the B-52 from Fairford during the Iraq War so he knows just how capable a platform it is but how does it compare to the B-1?
“They’re both phenomenal aircraft but the Block 16 upgrade on this B-1 is just outstanding. I’m still learning my way around it but there’s so much more information available to the crew. You can select what you want to see on each of the 4 or 5 screens; we call them ‘declutters’ because you can tailor it to what you want to see and when during the mission. That way you get just the information that’s relevant to you. The Block 16 jets’ systems have also been upgraded so that they can also talk to each other in the air. You can see what other B-1s are carrying, what they’re targeting, which AWACS they’re communicating with and if required, that information can be available to you too in an instant.”
The good news is that Ample Strike 2016 won’t be the last time you see B-1s deployed to the UK in support of an international exercise.
“I’m personally still pretty new to the B-1s but the B-52s have participated in Ample Strike since 2010. Now that we’re part of the 307th Bomb Wing, which is the lead unit for sending bombers to exercises, we’ve got the B-1 involved too and we’re hoping to participate in Ample Strike each year now. We’ve been asked to do another deployment in Norway shortly but again, it all depends on the training cycle and aircraft availability.”
Ample Strike runs until September 20th with flying elements scheduled to end on September 16th.