Bombers could pound terrorists in Libya in a future intervention
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The U.S. Air Force’s iconic B-52 Stratofortresses have become a regular sight at war games across Europe. But as terrorist groups wreak havoc across North Africa, the lumbering bombers are headed farther south.
On June 2, three of the massive, eight-engine planes touched down at RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom. From there, the aircraft will fly practice missions during three different exercises, including one off the coast of North Africa.
“Our bombers have not recently conducted training flights” near the African continent, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, the U.S. Strategic Command chief of public affairs for current operations, told War Is Boring by email. “The B-52 will remain over international waters and will not cross into national airspace.”
Since the top Pentagon headquarters for Africa lacks experience in commanding the big planes, the B-52s — or any of the Air Force’s other heavy bombers — do not make regular appearances in the region. However, that could all change very soon.
Ostensibly, the military exercise off North Africa — nicknamed Just Hammer — is all about communication. In the upcoming exercise, a single Stratofortress will fly from Britain to an unspecified location off the African coast.
During the flight, a command center handling U.S. military operations in Europe will hand control of the aircraft over to another center handling operations in Africa, according to O’Donnell. The bomber’s crew will also check in with other American forces throughout the mission.
The Pentagon’s top headquarters for operations in Europe and Africa are situated within minutes of each other in Stuttgart, Germany. From Ramstein Air Base, less than a 100 miles northwest, the same Air Force general is in charge of aerial missions in both regions.
While this procedure might sound utterly banal, the process mirrors how U.S. commanders would control any future bomber missions from bases in Europe against targets in countries in North Africa. And one country in the region where the United States is already carrying out air strikes is Libya.
Both O’Donnell and a public affairs officer at U.S. Africa Command were quick to highlight that B-2 stealth bombers — in that case flying all the way from Missouri and back — dropped bombs on hardened aircraft shelters in Libya during the country’s civil war in 2011.
Those strikes were part of an international mission that unseated long-time Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Four years after Gaddafi’s death, the country has descended into near chaos. Various political factions compete for legitimacy while militias and terrorists enforce their own brands of authority with impunity.
Formed in December 2015, the country’s internationally recognized “government of national accord” hardly reflects its title. Even more serious, after the stunning rise of the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria two years ago, the group was quick to send its emissaries to create a safe haven inside Libya.
By December 2014, the Pentagon had started sending drones and other spy planes to keep an eye on the situation and hunt for specific terrorists. Since June 2015, the Air Force has launched at least four air strikes aimed at militants in Libya — including an Islamic State training camp.
But in those cases, F-15E fighter bombers, likely flying from Britain or Djibouti, carried out the attacks. Able to take advantage of intelligence on short notice, the fast flying jets are ideal for targeted strikes.
B-52s are very, very different. A single Stratofortress can carry up to 70,000 pounds of bombs and missiles, making them better suited for attacking larger terrorist camps and command centers. Sure enough, after the bombers arrived in the Middle East in April for missions over Iraq, their first target was a building full of Islamic State weapons.
Of course, none of this means that the B-52s are gearing up to join a new American intervention in Libya — or anywhere else in North Africa. Officially, Just Hammer isn’t related to any current events. Similarly, a June 1 press release about the U.K. deployment stressed that the Air Force “routinely” sends bombers to Europe and the Pacific.
Over the past two years, the Pentagon has repeatedly denied that its bombers’ presence in Europe are a response to Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy in any way.
But senior military officials are inconsistent on whether to consider the B-52 deployments in Europe to be unusual … or just standard practice. A recent arrival of the bombers for March exercises in Norway was “not normal,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove said, who also denied it had anything to do with Russia.
Flying B-52s toward the North African coast is, suffice to say, even more unusual.
“Ensuring we can operate from strategic forward locations like RAF Fairford is integral to … a more timely and coordinated response during crises,” U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil D. Haney, the head of the Pentagon’s top strategic headquarters, said in a statement on June 1. “Integrating strategic bombers … in a variety of scenarios enhances the readiness and capability of U.S. and NATO military forces.”
With the prospect of the Islamic State strengthening its position in Libya, the White House and U.S. legislators continue to debate whether the Pentagon should take a more active role. In late 2015, the Pentagon sent commandos to seek out allies inside Libya who could help during a potential intervention, according to a report by the Washington Post.
In May, the State Department formally branded the Islamic State branch in Libya — along with the ones in Saudi Arabia and Yemen — as a separate terrorist group. This move gave Washington additional authority to sanction the organization’s members, seize their assets and punish anyone who might try and support their cause.
Wary of becoming embroiled in another conflict with no foreseeable end, the White House and the Pentagon have deflected suggestions that greater American involvement is inevitable. There are also lingering questions whether there are any willing partners on the ground to work with.
“[Libyans] like everybody, you know, want to do it themselves and to protect their sovereign people, and just like everybody else would be a little bit embarrassed that they need help,” U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez, the Pentagon’s chief of operations in Africa, told reporters on April 7.
“There are a lot of plans out there and everything.”
So whatever decision Washington makes in the end, it’s entirely possible that some of those war plans will soon include B-52 bomber strikes — if they don’t already.