Trio Of B-2 Stealth Bombers Deploy To The Remote Island Outpost Of Diego Garcia

Forward deploying the B-2s to the Indian Ocean puts them well within reach of hotspots in the Middle East and Asia. 

USAF

Three U.S. Air Force B-2A Spirit stealth bombers launched from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, in the early hours of Aug. 11, 2020, heading for the remote island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The three bombers flew west from their home base and out over the Pacific Ocean, passing Hawaii and then onwards for a planned run across northern Australia before continuing west to the secluded island air base.

The launch of this B-2 mission, which saw the aircraft using the callsigns Reaper 11, Reaper 12, and Reaper 13, follows the deployment of six USAF B-52Hs earlier this year to the remote base. That deployment was a response to a spike in tensions with Iran, details of which you can find here in this previous War Zone feature

Deploying B-2 stealth bombers to Diego Garcia means the U.S. Air Force has assets more readily available to be dynamically employed in the region if required. In particular, regional commanders can make use of the B-2's stealthy capabilities to undertake long-range penetrating missions into heavily defended areas.

You can hear audio from the B-2's flight to Diego Garcia here.

The deployment through the Pacific comes at a time of real tension in the South China Sea. Next week, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is expected to stage a series of exercises that are likely intended to simulate the storming of Taiwanese islands in the region, as detailed here. There has been a significant increase in military activity in the Indo-Pacific region recently, with more U.S.-led trilateral exercises planned in the region over the coming months.

The USAF last deployed B-2s to Diego Garcia in March 2016 amid heightened security concerns in the South China Sea. “Recent events demonstrate the continued need to provide consistent and credible air power throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” Air Force General Lori Robinson, the then Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) commander, told Air Force Times at the time.

Diego Garcia is one of just a handful of locations that are equipped to accommodate B-2s and it features four climate-controlled clamshell hangars known as B-2 Shelter Systems (BS22s) for the stealth bombers. Historically, the base has been used as a hub from which to mount long-range bomber missions into the Middle East and Central Asia. Yet its location means bomber crews must fly extremely long-endurance missions to reach these areas, well over 10 hours to reach Afghanistan, for example.

Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar is far closer to the Middle East operational theaters and it had become a favored operating location for Air Force Global Strike Command’s B-1s and B-52s in recent years. However, it is vulnerable, falling well within reach of Iran’s ballistic missiles. It is also markedly farther away from hotspots in the Pacific. 

USAF/SrA Joel Pfiester

A B-2A at Diego Garcia during the March 2016 deployment.

When Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) sent six B-52Hs to Diego Garcia earlier this year to be ready to respond to any potential Iranian aggression, they did so specifically to also keep them safely out of the range of Tehran’s missile threat. It is unclear if this new B-2 deployment is designed as a show of force in the Pacific region, or whether the bombers are responding to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) requirements, which was a primary driver for the last bomber deployment there.

Beyond just supporting bomber missions, Diego Garcia provides the U.S. military with a secluded strategic operations base and staging post, which is ideally located for supporting long missions into a range of potential hotspots, including East Africa and the Pacific regions, as well as to the Middle East. In addition to the airfield, the island’s lagoon is used to host one of two Military Sealift Command’s Prepositioning Ship Squadrons. Its ships are loaded with munitions and equipment, ready to respond to a crisis on short notice.

This deployment to Diego Garcia also comes after the USAF ended its 16-year Continuous Bomber Presence at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam in April 2020, as it sought to change the predictability of the Bomber Task Force’s rotating series of deployments. This was in line with the National Defense Strategy’s objectives of strategic predictability and operational unpredictability. The USAF is looking not just at dynamic mission employment, but also dynamic basing for the B-2s. Stealth bombers were notably dispatched to Wake Island in the Pacific in 2018 and to Iceland last year as part of its vision for rapid, expeditionary, and distributed deployment concepts.

The Air Force says it now focuses on sending smaller and less predictable bomber deployments to the region as part of its new dynamic force employment model. “We can come and go anytime they need us, we don’t need to be there physically,” said AFGSC chief General Timothy Ray of the new strategy, which means bombers can operate around the globe, even without being permanently deployed to bases abroad.

USAF/SrA Joel Pfiester

A series of snap global missions by B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s have been undertaken since the end of the Continuous Bomber Presence in a clear effort to highlight the ability to employ these assets with greater versatility and combine their effects with other combat aircraft. The launch of the B-2s this morning coincided with another strategic mission, flown by a pair of B-1B Lancers, that launched from their deployment location at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and flew north towards the Sea of Japan.

While long-range, global B-2 missions from their home base are fairly routine, sending a deployment of three aircraft for a sustained period overseas is a significant event for Whiteman AFB’s 509th Bomb Wing. Moving three of the stealth bombers to Diego Garcia is a huge logistical undertaking, both in terms of tanker and cargo support. However, positioning these bombers here opens up a range of various possibilities for the U.S. military. 

It’s possible that a B-2 deployment to the Indian Ocean is designed to fit into the large-scale U.S. exercises that lay ahead, including the Rim Of The Pacific, or RIMPAC, exercises that are due to commence on August 17. The Indian-led Malabar exercise is also scheduled to be held by the end of this year, and it could include Australian, as well as U.S. assets. China has expanded its naval operations into the Indian Ocean and it’s possible the B-2s could make their first appearance in this exercise. On the other hand, the deployment could also be at least partially aimed at Iran and even deterring China on a grander level.

And that is precisely why Diego Garcia offers such a unique strategic staging opportunity for long-range combat aviation assets. It provides flexible and secure forward-basing, unlike any other locale. 

We will bring you more details as and when the exact nature of this long-range B-2 mission becomes clearer.

Author's note: Thanks to our friend @Aircraftspots for first tracking this important B-2 mission.

Contact the author: jamie@thedrive.com