Two pairs of B-52H Stratofortress bombers, from Barksdale AFB and from Minot AFB, streaked north last week on a long-range exercise dubbed “Polar Growl.” One set of bombers would end up over the far reaches of the North Sea, while the other would cruise high above the Polar Icecap, both areas where Putin's Russia is increasing its presence. This doesn't seem like a coincidence.
The whole affair had three main objectives. First, to test and see how US Strategic Command could handle two separate missions, heading into two separate areas, at the same time. Second, to inter-operate with allied air forces and give crews familiarity with mock foreign intercepts. And third, to give B-52 crews experience navigating the extreme northerly latitudes. STRATCOM boss Admiral Cecil Haney described the value of the exercise:
“These flights, demonstrating the credible and flexible ability of our strategic bomber force in internationally-recognized flight information regions, are the culmination of months of planning and coordination... They are one of many ways we demonstrate interoperability, compliance with national and international protocols, and due regard for the safety of all aircraft sharing the air space.”
Such a statement is somewhat of a slap in the face to the Russians who have become increasingly brazen when it comes to their near constant long-range strategic aircraft drills, even turning off their transponders when flying in dense international airspace.
During Polar Growl, the B-52Hs practiced dissimilar air intercepts and maneuvering with Royal Canadian AF, Royal AF and Royal Netherlands AF fighters. All have been intercepting Russian bomber, surveillance and fighter aircraft with alarming regularity over the past year. Major Nathan Barnhart, a 343rd Bomb Squadron instructor radar navigator describes the utility of such a training sortie:
"The long-range nature of the mission, coupled with the opportunity to interact in real-time with allied aircraft was an invaluable experience that simply can't be replicated out of the cockpit... Training like this ensures we are ready to respond to any and all mission directives across the globe."
Although flying a quartet of bombers from the continental US to the northern reaches of the globe and coordinating aerial refueling and mock-intercepts along the way undoubtedly represents a lot of work, it is a far cry from the Cold War era's near constant B-52 patrols over the same regions. In some ways, the fact that doing so is labeled a banner exercise is telling in itself as to how far the USAF's strategic readiness has decayed since the end of the Cold War. Additionally, it pales in comparison to the volume of long-range aviation assets Russia puts in the air to execute similar sorties on a near regular basis. This fact is made clear via a comment made by 5th Operations Support Squadron's nuclear operations chief at Minot AFB:
"There are a rare number of opportunities to practice Polar Navigation. The training that the crews received from the Polar Growl mission was invaluable... We continue to update the knowledge base of the crew force through squadron and operation discussions of these events to share experiences and techniques to keep the sword sharp in the many mission sets the B-52 Stratofortress is responsible for."
And those "many missions" that he references, along with ever decreasing crew flight hours, may be hindrances to the B-52 force's ability to stay in top readiness condition for their nuclear strike role. The truth is that for the past decade and a half they have been busy bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan from tens of thousands of feet up in the air, employing their Sniper targeting pods, which were designed for fighter aircraft, and laser and GPS guided bombs. This is a very different mission than patrolling the arctic as a deterrent towards potential Russian aggression.
Although Polar Growl may not be as incredible a show of force as the USAF softly implies, the locations where these B-52s were sent are areas where Putin's Russia has great interest.
Now we will have to see if Polar Growl was just a preview of many more similar missions to come. Seeing as Putin's long-range aviation forces have marauded around the globe with alarming regularity as of late, and the US is already trying to curtail these flights, now it may be time for the USAF to give Russia a little taste of its own medicine.
Source via USAF, photos via USAF with B-52 alone, with Dutch F-16s by Koninklijke Luchtmacht/Royal Netherlands AF via the Aviationist.com
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com