This image from the US Department of Defense shows a US Air Force B-1B Lancer flying over the East China Sea on January 9, 2018. Photo: AFP/Peter Reft/US Air Force

In three major military operations, the US used B-1 bombers in missions aimed at Chinese fortified reefs and islands in the South China Sea, a strategic foray into the Okhotsk Sea aimed at Russia and a Black Sea mission that involved elements of Ukraine’s Air Force. 

All three missions together form part of what the US Air Force is calling its Dynamic Force Employment model. The heart of the model is that the US can choose when and how it will use its strategic forces to stabilize the balance of power in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. 

The US has 11 B-1B bomber wings in seven states and also deploys from Guam – Andersen Air Force Base – and from the UK – RAF Fairford airbase. The US can use many other bases including Diego Garcia in the central Indian Ocean.  

The backbone of the US strategic bomber force is the B1-B “Lancer,” commonly called the Bone (B-One). This is a heavy, long-range bomber (216,000 kg)  that carries a variety of weapons.

Sixty-two B-1s underwent a major modernization program completed last year including an upgrade to an active electronic scanned array radar (AESA). Unlike the B-2 bomber, the B1-B is not stealthy, but it can carry stealthy long-range weapons. 

The B1-B is also scheduled to be the first strategic platform to carry a US hypersonic missile, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) now in development. The B1-B can carry up to 24 ARRWs. The ARRW missiles will have a top speed of 24,695.4 kilometers per hour, or 15,345 miles per hour.

The B1-B on its two recent Pacific missions were armed with extended range Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM-ER). 

JASSM-ER has a range of 925km (575 miles) and can knock out hardened ground targets or attack ships at sea. It carries a 454kg armor-piercing warhead. JASSMs with a new seeker head converts the weapon into a Long Range Anti Ship Missile (JASSM-LRASM). 

A US-made Long Range Anti Ship Missile, known as JASSM-LRASM. Photo: US Military

LRASM challenges Chinese and Russian deployed surface fleets, up to and including China’s new aircraft carriers.  

The JASSM missile is classified as low observable, meaning its radar signature is greatly reduced, making it “stealthy.”  

The US made no secret of the JASSM’s use on the B-1Bs in its Pacific operations. In fact, the US Air Force circulated a photo of the bomb bay of the B-1 showing that JASSM missiles were loaded.

Black Sea and Ukrainian mission

The Black Sea and Ukraine mission took place after a US Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft was harassed by Russian Su-35 fighters while operating in international waters in the Black Sea. 

But the larger context might also have been reports of a build-up of Russian military forces along Ukraine’s border.

In March, the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reported that Russia had formed two new armies in the western and southern military districts – the 20th Army headquartered in Voronezh and the 8th Army headquartered in Novocherkassk – as well as the 22nd army corps (Simferopol) on the Crimean peninsula.

There is growing concern that Russia’s leaders may externalize their domestic problems. Russia is in the midst of a strong Covid-19 epidemic. It also is suffering from very low world oil prices that are worsening Russia’s economy. President Vladimir Putin’s popularity and support, based on independent polls in Russia, has plummeted to an historic low.

The US-led mission featured two US B-1Bs – aircraft number 85-0060 and 86-0139, both aircraft part of the US Air Force 34th Bomb Squadron out of the RAF Airbase at Fairford in the UK – that were escorted by Ukrainian fighter jets – two MiG-29s from the Ukrainian 40th Tactical Air Brigade based in Vasykiv and two Su-27Ps from the 831st Tactical Air Brigade from Myrhorod.

The flight took place partially over Ukraine’s territory. The Russians quickly scrambled two Su-27SMs from the 38th Fighter Aviation Regiment based at Belbek Air Base (Sevastopol) in Crimea. 

South China Sea

Two B-1B Lancer bombers from the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas were deployed to Guam and carried out a mission in the South China Sea on May 26, 2020. This was the second recent mission – the earlier one, on April 29, came out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

In the South China Sea the US is challenging Chinese claims and military operations on several islands and reefs, including the Spratly, Paracel and Senkaku islands. The US is also conducting Freedom of Navigation naval operations.  

The two most recent US operations focused on Russia in the Pacific was a decision to send F-22 fighters into the Aleutian Sea to intercept Russian bombers and the deployment of a single B1-B bomber into the Okhotsk Sea. A second B-1 deployed directly to Japan.

One of two US Air Force B-1B bombers receives fuel while flying from Guam, into Japanese airspace and over the Korean Peninsula, July 30, 2017. Photo: US Air Force

The Okhotsk Sea covers the Kamchatka Peninsula on the east, the Kuril Islands on the southeast, Japan’s island of Hokkaido to the south, the island of Sakhalin along the west and a stretch of eastern Siberian coast along the west and north. 

The unprecedented strategic bomber flight into the Okhotsk Sea area took place on May 21. The flight call sign of the B-1B heading to the Okhotsk Sea was DODGE01. When DODGE01 began to enter the Okhotsk Sea area it received a call from Tokyo Air Traffic Control advising DODGE01 on flight rule limitations in the area. 

DODGE01 entered the Okhotsk through a 22km international gap between Simushir Island and Chirpoy Island in the Kurils. Simushir is a former site of a secret Soviet submarine base, but the base is long gone and the island is now uninhabited. Chirpoy also is uninhabited.

Presumably, the Russians monitored Tokyo Air Traffic Control and DODGE01’s communications, but the Russians did not scramble any jets or even comment about the flight of DODGE01. However, the following day, the Russian Air Force flew another patrol mission near Alaska.

The aggressive use of the US-1Bs is a strong challenge to Russia and China. Above all, it shows that the Trump administration is continuing to strengthen deterrence in the Black Sea region and in the South China Sea. The Okhotsk Sea flight tells the Russians that if they want to act in a forward and aggressive manner near Alaska or elsewhere, the US can do the same.