By HELENE COOPER
PIEDMONT, S.D. — At 7:29 a.m., the B-1 bomber raced down the runway at Ellsworth Air Force Base, and within two stomach-churning minutes was at 10,000 feet and streaking toward Lake Michigan.
The destination: a battle at 27,000 feet over Wisconsin farmland, complete with B-52 bombers and F-16 fighter jets, whose mission was to simulate airstrikes while evading “enemy” fighter planes. Maj. Jonathan Slinkard was at the controls in the co-pilot’s seat because a reporter was riding in the pilot’s seat. In the rear of the plane, Capt. Brian Guyette worked with the weapons officer, Capt. Angi Daiuto.
The cockpit of a B-1 bomber in the middle of a fight — even a practice one — is a thing to behold. From the pilot’s seat, the view is at once expansive (nothing but sky) and distracting (is that the master caution light, the one light that Major Slinkard said to worry about, going off?). A cacophony of excited chatter from the F-16 pilots came streaming through headphones, mixed with the laconic replies of Major Slinkard, unfazed when one of the F-16s, called Badger 1, was hit by fire from “enemy” fighter jets.
“Our fighter was killed,” Major Slinkard said calmly, glancing sideways at his ride-along passenger. Over the radio, the chatter was furious: “Badger’s dead! Badger’s dead!”
The Air Force flew a reporter on one of its long-range strategic bombers to show off its abilities and to make a plea to Congress for money to preserve and upgrade the country’s aging fleet — 20-year-old B-2 stealth bombers, 28-year-old B-1s and 50-year-old B-52s — as military budget cuts and skepticism in some quarters threaten the planes’ future.
The Air Force frequently argues to Congress that bombers could save the United States from deploying thousands of troops or aircraft carriers to strike targets as far away as China and North Korea or sections of Iraq held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Sunni extremist group known as ISIS. The B-1 could make the bombing runs in a single round trip from South Dakota, North Dakota, Louisiana or Texas. “Stretching our legs,” Lt. Col. Joseph Kramer, the Air Force pilot who coordinated the mission, called it.
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The Air Force likes to point out that potential adversaries have not been sitting around in the intervening years waiting to be hit. China, Russia and Iran have upgraded their ability to defend their airspace with ballistic and cruise missiles, integrated air defense systems, antiship missiles, submarines, guided rockets, missiles, artillery and cyberweapons. Pentagon officials say many of the defensive measures are specifically devised to challenge the American military in Asia and the Middle East.
The Air Force is now outfitting its bombers with updated missiles and technology that would allow the planes to hit targets from distances of about 500 miles, which would keep the planes beyond the reach — for now — of Chinese defense systems.
Not everyone agrees that the solution is spending more money on aging bombers, or even that the bombers — originally conceived to counter the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union — are relevant today.
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“Is there a justification for a strategic nuclear-capable long-range bomber? Definitely no,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University who oversaw military spending in the budget office of President Bill Clinton. “We have more than enough capacity to deter and strike if needed with nuclear-missile-carrying submarines.”
To make the Air Force case, shortly after 8 a.m. on May 13, two B-1s carrying 21,000 pounds of dummy bombs taxied down the runway at Ellsworth for a nonstop trip halfway around the world and back.
About 30 hours later, the planes, each with a crew of four, returned to Ellsworth empty after dropping payloads of inert bombs in the Pacific, off the coast of Guam. In a little-noticed news release citing the success of the mission, Col. Kevin Kennedy, commander of the 28th Bomb Wing, highlighted the “extended lethality of not only the B-1, but our nation’s entire bomber fleet.” He added a pointed mention, in case anyone had forgotten, that three years ago, B-1 bombers had flown from South Dakota to strike targets in Libya.
“Ladies and gentlemen, bombers are as needed today as they ever were,” Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, the Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, told reporters not long ago. But he added, “We need to actually have an unemotional debate about what’s going on and how we need to modernize.”
A June 4 report by the Congressional Research Service put the issue in stark terms, calling the American bomber fleet — the Air Force’s pride and joy, with a storied past that goes back to World War II — in danger of becoming “increasingly irrelevant” as potential adversaries come up with new ways to keep the bombers out of their airspace.
“Already, against today’s toughest air defenses, the B-52 and B-1 are largely relegated to standoff roles,” the report said. “Only the B-2 is expected to get through. In the years to come, the Air Force anticipates the B-2’s ability to penetrate will also decline, even though the Air Force plans to upgrade all three bombers with new systems and weapons.”
The Air Force is working on a new long-range strike bomber, at around $550 million per plane. Air Force officials say they hope to have up to 100 of the new bombers by the mid-2020s. They assert that the new plane will be stealthier, and better able to penetrate air defenses, than the B-2.
Meanwhile, the aircrews that fly and work on the country’s aging bombers are stepping up efforts to prove the planes’ usefulness. Preparing for the 30-hour round-trip flight to Guam last month, Air Force doctors, using a combination of sleep medication and caffeinated “go” pills, worked to change the circadian rhythms of the crew members so that they could maximize alertness during important stages of the mission, like midair refuelings — there were five — and the dropping of bombs.
Captain Daiuto was the weapons officer on the Guam mission. She said she slept in the narrow aisle, next to the tiny enclosure that serves as the airplane’s toilet, which is separated from the aisle when in use by a plastic black curtain. With the B-1’s cargo area crammed with bombs and missiles, the crew quarters are tight, to say the least. The crew members contort themselves to climb, and then wiggle, into their seats, while strapped into oxygen masks, flight suits, flight vests and parachutes.
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It does not make for comfortable sleeping, but Captain Daiuto was going to sleep for only 30 minutes anyway. “My caffeine management plan worked fine,” she said after the flight, echoing claims by several bomber pilots and crew members who swear that they are “good to go” — a favored phrase — on only 30 minutes of sleep a day.
A few weeks later, Captain Daiuto was back in the air again for the reporter’s ride-along. After the F-16, Badger 1, was lost to enemy fire, there was more frantic chatter about the whereabouts of Badger 2, another F-16: “Do we still have Badger 2? What is Badger 2’s missile state?”
Badger 2 turned out to be in fine shape. Major Slinkard and his crew dropped their payload and were making tracks out of the fight when two more “enemy” fighters tried to chase them down. There was some stomach-heaving evasive maneuvering before Badger 2 moved in to protect the bomber. The first part of the mission was complete.
There remained a final task, a practice mission to provide air support — in other words, the dropping of simulated bombs at the request of supposed troops on the ground. The mission came only a week after a friendly-fire episode in Afghanistan involving a B-1 bomber that was providing air support to real American troops on the ground. Five American soldiers were killed. The military is investigating.
Perhaps for that reason, there appeared to be an urgency to Major Slinkard’s close-air-support training mission — the same kind of mission in which the Afghanistan friendly-fire episode occurred.
Aboard Major Slinkard’s bomber, it was quieter, almost surgical. Unlike in the first part of the mission, there was not much in the way of excited chatter from the fighter pilots. When the orders came over the airwaves with the coordinates for where to drop the bombs, Captain Daiuto repeated them, twice.