Super Bowl Flyover Offered A Glimpse Of A Future Where Multiple Bomber Types Join Forces In Combat

The Air Force is exploring how B-1Bs and B-52Hs can work together more directly, including targeting "handoffs" involving stealthy cruise missiles.

A B-52H, B-1B, and a B-2A fly over Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7, 2021.
US Army

The Air Force says that its unique Super Bowl flyover this year, which involved one of each of its three current heavy bomber types, reflected actual work being done on new concepts of operation. Just days before the big game, a B-1B and a B-52H flew together in a test to explore how these aircraft might work more directly together in actual combat, including sharing targeting information that could be used to fire stealthy AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, or JASSMs.

Personnel from the 49th and 337th Test and Evaluation Squadrons carried out the test from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on Feb. 3, 2021. The 49th and 337th are responsible for testing and evaluating upgrades and modifications, as well as new tactics, techniques, and procedures, for the B-52H and B-1B bombers, respectively. Both units are assigned to the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada, which is a geographically separated component of the 53rd Wing, headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

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A B-52H bomber, in front, shares the ramp at Barksdale Air Force Base with a B-1B, behind, in 2016.

For this flight, a B-52H pilot and weapon systems officer flew in the B-1B and vice versa. The planes conducted various maneuvers inside the “Lancer” training area, situated to the west of Dallas, Texas, according to Air Force Magazine.

"This unique opportunity allowed the aircrew to gain a better understanding and perspective of one another as the two units develop tactics for bomber interoperability and stand-off weapon employment," the Air Force said. The service has been conducting similar "integration flights" since 2016.

However, “the intent behind this bomber test integration event went beyond the cross-learning benefit from the inter-fly opportunity,” Air Force Colonel Jamie Hernandez, head of the 53rd Test Management Group, also part of the 53rd Wing, said in a statement. The testing "instead focused on developing, testing and vetting integrated tactics to provide the warfighter with the techniques and procedures and Combatant Commanders the option and flexibility to employ the B-1 and B-52 as an integrated and synergistic long-range weapon force package."

"A goal of these tests was to fly in formation to do practice stand-off weapons sorties so we can start building how we fly together, pass targets if we get new ones, and how we ultimately work together," Air Force Major Joseph Wilkinson, a B-1 Instructor Weapon Systems Officer from the 337th, added. A spokesperson for Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), which oversees all of the Air Force's bomber fleets, told Air Force Magazine that the test specifically involved exploring "handoff techniques" when employing variants of the AGM-158 JASSM. It's not clear whether the operational concept in question only involved the transfer of targeting data or whether one bomber is expected to actually launch the missile, after which the other aircraft would begin sending updates to it via its data link.

At present, the Air Force has a fleet of around 76 B-52H bombers, 40 of which are configured to carry nuclear-armed AGM-86B cruise missiles, among other weapons. Of those aircraft, four are permanently set aside for test work. The remaining examples have been modified to be only able to carry conventional weapons. Another 10 airframes in storage are kept in a closer-to-operational state than usual to make it easier to return them to service, if necessary.

The service also has some 62 B-1Bs, a pair of which are also dedicated test aircraft. There are plans in the works to retire the 17 oldest jets in that fleet this year, which would leave 43 combat-coded bombers. Since 2011, all of these aircraft have been configured to only carry conventional weapons and there are no plans at present to restore their nuclear capabilities.

For many years, before and after the Cold War, the Air Force's B-52Hs and B-1Bs offered certain distinct capabilities, with the latter bombers actually have a larger overall payload capacity, as well as being faster and having a smaller radar signature. The B-52Hs, of course, had the benefit, and still do, of being able to carry additional, often outsized payloads, externally, something the B-1Bs have been unable to do for much of their careers. 

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A B-52H bomber takes off carrying two captive-carry test articles being used in the development of the AGM-183 hypersonic missile.

However, especially in the past two decades, starting with the beginning of the Global War on Terror, the B-52s have found themselves increasingly employed in conventional roles, including for close air support (CAS). The B-1Bs, which had lost their nuclear mission in the mid-1990s, despite the physical conversion work continuing for years afterward, were also actively deployed to support America's conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

This has continued in the more recent campaigns against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, with B-1Bs being extremely heavily used in the CAS role. The fight against ISIS took a massive toll on the B-1B fleet, overall, leaving it in an extremely poor state of readiness by 2019, something it has only just begun to recover from. The Air Force subsequently prohibited these aircraft from conducting low-level flight operations and scaled back their allowable annual flight hours, as a whole. 

The service has also now reportedly blocked the B-1B fleet from making any more deployments to conduct CAS or other similar conventional missions in support of ongoing combat operations. Overall, the Air Force has dramatically shifted the focus of bomber operations, globally, toward activities meant to deter or otherwise signal America's long-range strike capabilities to potential adversaries, including Russia and China, as well as Iran and North Korea. This has included overflights of potentially politically sensitive areas in and around the Pacific and Europe, as well as flying long-distance non-stop sorties to and from various strategically significant areas

In addition, Air Force bombers, to include its B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, are visiting more and more remote or otherwise unusual locations. This is part of a broader effort to expand the number of bases these aircraft could make use of during a conflict to distribute their operations, make them less predictable, and generally reduce their vulnerability to hostile forces.

At the same time, the conventional arsenals of the B-1s and B-52s are growing, with plans to integrate new hypersonic weapons onto both types in the coming years. The Air Force is also working with Boeing on reactivating the B-1Bs six external hardpoints, an obscure capability that has never seen widespread use and was originally intended specifically for carrying nuclear weapons. At present, these bombers typically only fly with one pylon installed, which has almost exclusively been used to mount a Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP). There is now an interest in using them to carry various kinds of conventional munitions, including JASSMs and hypersonic missiles.

The B-1B is also becoming an increasingly important long-range anti-ship platform in combination with the AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). The AGM-158C is a derivative of the JASSM family, which was, as already noted, a key factor in this recent interoperability test out of Barksdale. These missiles reached initial operational capability on the B-1B in 2018.

All told, it's not difficult at all to envision a future conflict where groups of B-1B and B-52H bombers are tasked to engage the same general target sets across a broad area. Improving direct interoperability between the two types would help make those operations more complementary and efficient, especially if the jets could share targeting information or begin sending target updates directly to a weapon already launched by another aircraft.

Conceivably, in the future, a B-52H crew aware of threats in a certain area, but with no more weapons left onboard, could pass targeting information to any B-1Bs nearby that still had the ability to prosecute targets, or vice versa. In many ways, this simply reflects the Air Force's general desire to reach a future state in which various networks exist to rapidly get information to and from the best platforms for the job, regardless of whether they're bombers or any other kind of aircraft, or even platforms on the ground, at sea, or in space.

It very much remains to be seen what other kinds of complementary capabilities might be produced by having B-1Bs and B-52Hs work more closely together operationally. An AFGCS spokesperson told Air Force Magazine that this experimentation has been following a “crawl, walk, run” approach "and we’re very much at the ‘crawl’ stage now."

However the effort evolves now, it seems more and more likely that we will see different types of Air Force bombers flying together operationally, not just in flyovers at the beginning of major sporting events.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com