By David Axe | Wired.com | Jul. 13, 2011
It began with an email in late February. The message, sent by air planners at the Germany headquarters of U.S. Africa Command to the 608th Air and Space Operations Center located at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, jump-started a “byzantine” process of communication, planning and paperwork involving no fewer than 10 U.S. military headquarters scattered across the globe.
The goal? To fly a pair of 150-foot-long U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers, pictured, on a more than 12,000-mile round trip from their home base in South Dakota, over the Atlantic Ocean to Libya, where they would conduct two bombing runs each on Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.
If that seems like a lot of fuss over just two planes in an air campaign involving scores of jet fighters from a dozen NATO nations, consider this: the B-1 can carry more precision munitions than any other warplane except one. In a roughly four-day period involving 24 hours of combat time, those two B-1s and their combined eight crew members destroyed more than 100 Libyan targets. It would take dozens of NATO fighters to achieve the same effect.
The epic Libyan bombing run — described in detail by Air Force Magazine – illustrates why, even in this era of budget cuts, the Pentagon is determined to sustain its bomber fleet potentially into the 22nd century, by spending $40 billion or more on 100 new Next-Generation Bombers. Stealth fighters are great (when they’re not grounded, that is). But for taking out a bad guy’s ground forces and facilities, nothing beats a bomber.
But the gigantic warplanes certain have their drawbacks. They guzzle fuel like nobody’s business. And being so few in number — America’s fleet of B-1s, B-2s and 1960s-era B-52s numbers just 160 — military commands have to beg the Air Force to use them. Finally, flying halfway around the world to drop a few bombs, something only bombers can do, requires a mind-boggling bureaucratic process.
Which is why Africa Command, the headquarters that oversaw the U.S.-led phase of the Libya campaign, emailed its bomber query to the 608th weeks in advance, initially requesting stealthy B-2s. Africa Command got three B-2s for just one mission on the opening night of attacks on March 19. After that, the B-2s were slated to be elsewhere.
So the 608th, part of the 8th Air Force, which in turn falls under U.S. Strategic Command, relayed the bomber request to Joint Forces Command. That headquarters bumped the order down to the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, which owns the B-1s. Once Air Combat Command decided it could spare two B-1s, it temporarily transferred the bombers over to Strategic Command, which flew them over the Atlantic, at which point they fell under Africa Command’s direction.
But that’s not all. To get from South Dakota to Libya, the two B-1s each needed help from five or more Air Force KC-135 or KC-10 aerial tankers. “Tanker planning … ends up being the real story,” the 608th’s Col. Michael Tichenor said. Tanker rendezvous were arranged in conjunction with a tanker-control agency in Illinois plus the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, which own the actual refueling planes.
Plus, the bombers laid over at an undisclosed European base after their first bombing run, only compounding the mission’s complexity. Refueled and rearmed, the B-1s took off, struck more targets, then headed back to the U.S., meeting additional tankers every couple thousand miles.
The planning process was so elaborate that some Air Force officers seemed pleasantly surprised that it worked at all. The 8th Air Force “has been doing long-range aviation since the beginning of time,” its commander Maj. Gen. Floyd Carpenter said. But the 608th is a new unit and “has never gotten to do this in reality,” Carpenter said.
“We spend a lot of time planning,” he added, “and now we’ve proved that we can execute the plan, as well.”
The flaming wreckage of more than 100 Libyan targets is testimony to the destructive prowess of America’s bombers. But these impressive warplanes would never leave the ground without bureaucrats and refuelers to support them.
Photo: Air Force