By Airman 1st Class Joseph Raatz , Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs
/ Published September 29, 2014
BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. (AFNS) -- The Air Force recently demonstrated its nuclear deterrence and power projection capabilities through a coordinated display of strategic combat power.
Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen -- responsible for two legs of the nation's nuclear triad -- conducted the demonstrations, which included participation in a large combined forces exercise in the Pacific, a nuclear-capable cruise missile weapon system evaluation over the Utah Test and Training Range, and an ICBM operational test launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
"The United States' strategic forces provide the nation a safe, secure and effective deterrent that's ready 24/7," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, the AFGSC commander. "While the world is growing more challenging and more complex, Global Strike Airmen operate with flexibility and strategic agility whether the mission calls for a conventional or nuclear capability."
Showcasing AFGSC's conventional capabilities, 8th Air Force Airmen currently deployed to Andersen AFB, Guam, and participated in the exercise Valiant Shield, a U.S. Pacific Command combined forces training exercise that took place Sept. 15-23.
Valiant Shield is a biennial field training exercise that focuses on the integration of joint training among U.S. forces. The participating forces demonstrated the inherent flexibility of joint forces and exercised a wide range of capabilities, from maritime security operations to anti-submarine and air defense exercises and complex warfighting.
"Having the B-52 (Stratofortress) operate in the Pacific provides security and stability in the region and allows our operators to become familiar with the area of operations," said Capt. Case Johnson, a B-52 aircraft commander assigned to the 96th Bomb Wing here. "This was my first time participating in Valiant Shield and I learned a lot of great things, including the capabilities our sister services...The long loiter time and number of weapons we bring to the fight make (the B-52) a great joint asset."
In addition to AFGSC bomber support, the nine-day Pacific theater-focused exercise brought together 19 surface ships, more than 200 aircraft and 18,000 U.S. troops from every branch of service to participate in joint forces operations throughout the region.
“It was very interesting to learn from the other branches of the service and learn about their unique capabilities," said Capt. Anthony Mascaro, a B-52 pilot with the 96th Bomb Squadron and a participant in Valiant Shield. "One of the things we've learned is how to interoperate with the different services that are out here, for instance discovering what kind of requirements the Navy might have versus the Air Force for a certain mission set. We would approach a problem and then work together on how to solve it in a joint fashion."
The Air Force has been conducting continuous bomber presence operations in the Asia-Pacific Region for more than a decade and plans to continue the practice into the foreseeable future.
"This forward deployed presence demonstrates continuing U.S. commitment to stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region," said Maj. Gen. Scott Vander Hamm, the 8th Air Force and Task Force 204 commander. "Eighth Air Force maintains an ongoing deployment of bombers to Andersen, which provides opportunities for our Airmen to advance and strengthen regional alliances and our long-standing military-to-military partnerships throughout the Asia-Pacific. Most importantly, these bomber rotations provide Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Pacific Command commanders a global strike and extended deterrence capability against any potential adversary."
While Valiant Shield was in full swing in the Pacific, 8th Air Force bomber crews stateside conducted an end-to-end operational nuclear weapons system evaluation demonstrating the strategic bomber force's ability to configure, load, fly and deliver a nuclear capable air launched cruise missile. As part of the Nuclear Weapons System Evaluation Program, or NucWSEP, two B-52H Stratofortresses were tasked to fly a simulated combat mission from Barksdale AFB to the Utah Test and Training Range where one launched an unarmed AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile, Sept. 22.
As a standoff weapon the AGM-86B was designed to be launched from outside of the combat area, allowing aircrews to strike distant targets with a high degree of accuracy without exposing themselves to potentially deadly enemy fire.
"These periodic demonstrations provide a highly visual example of our nation's long range strike abilities," Vander Hamm said. "With each success, we prove to our adversaries that we can and will effectively defend the United States and its allies and can reliably strike at any threat, any time."
With aerial refueling, a B-52 can put AGM-86B capability anywhere in the world within hours. Each B-52 can carry up to 20 of the missiles, with six on each of two exterior pylons and eight on an interior rotary launcher.
"An enemy force would have to counterattack each of the missiles, making defense against them costly and complicated. The enemy's defenses are further hampered by the missiles' small size and low-altitude flight capability, which makes them difficult to detect on radar," Vander Hamm said.
For the NucWSEP, Airmen from the 2nd Bomb Wing's munitions and aircraft maintenance squadrons pulled the ALCM data during the missile's flight and feed it back to the operators. This provided a detailed picture of how well the weapon system functioned.
"We're testing it the whole time to make sure that it's operating in the manner in which it was designed," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Craig, a cruise missile maintenance team chief with the 2nd Munitions Squadron here.
Once the diagnostics and programming were completed, the ALCM was loaded onto a B-52 by an experienced weapons load team. The B-52 then flew to the test range and launched the weapon, which flew for an undisclosed amount of time before striking its target.
For aircrews, the opportunity to launch a missile drove home the importance of their mission.
"When you think of deterrence, it's not something that you normally see in the news every day, but what we're doing on this flight... is vitally important to the defense of the U.S.," said Capt. Lance Adsit, a B-52 aircraft commander with the 20th Bomb Squadron who flew with the lead aircraft during the test.
"The impact this has is it makes sure when our leaders go to make any type of decisions or negotiations on the world stage that they're in a position of power, that their voice is heard -- and not only heard but it's respected and taken into account when other countries make decisions," said Airman 1st Class Karl Reid, an ALCM flight missile technician with the 2nd Munitions Squadron here. "I think that's important and it's an honor to be a part of it."
Demonstrating the ground-based leg of the nation's nuclear triad, AFGSC and 20th Air Force Airmen conducted an operational test launch of an unarmed LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg AFB, Sept. 23. It was the most recent in a series of more than 200 test launches conducted with the Minuteman III program.
"Test launches are critical to validating the continued accuracy and reliability of the Minuteman III weapon system and providing valuable data to ensure a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent," said" said Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, the commander of 20th Air Force and Task Force 214. "Our Airmen maintain and operate this weapon system year round in some challenging environments, and this test is a result of their expertise and tireless devotion to this mission."
The launch team, under the direction of the 576th Flight Test Squadron at Vandenberg AFB, included Airmen from the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota.
"Like all Airmen in 20th Air Force and Task Force 214, the Airmen of the 91st Missile Wing are dedicated and highly proficient in maintaining, securing and operating the ICBM leg of the nation's strategic deterrence capability," said Col. Michael Lutton, the 91st MW commander. "This launch allowed us to demonstrate that excellence."
As in each Minuteman III test launch, preparation for this launch began months before the launch date. The Air Force selected a missile from the field at random and removed it from the silo. The nuclear ordnance was then removed by a team of skilled missile technicians. Once disarmed, the missile was loaded into a special transporter vehicle and driven to the launch site at Vandenberg AFB.
When the missile reached its destination it was loaded with telemetry packages and carefully lowered into the test-launch silo. After running an exhaustive series of diagnostics and proceeding through checklists, the missile crews launched the ICBM toward the Kwajalein Atoll some 4,200 miles away, where it struck its target.
"This launch is the result of months of hard work and preparation by both our team here at Vandenberg, Airmen from Minot (Air Force Base) and engineers from the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center," said Col. Kelvin Townsend, the 576th Flight Test Squadron commander. "This launch validated our teamwork and demonstrated a strong and visible display of America's deterrent and global strike capabilities."
Every test launch verifies the accuracy and reliability of the ICBM weapon system, providing valuable data to ensure a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent, Townsend said.
The Minuteman III ICBM has a range of more than 6,000 miles and can put a nuclear weapon on target almost anywhere on the globe. The U.S. maintains 450 of the missiles in hardened silos, manned 24 hours a day by highly trained and dedicated Airmen.
While the test launches are designed to test the missile system, they have the added benefits of both demonstrating the nation's powerful deterrence capabilities and boosting the morale of the missile crews and maintenance personnel who stand vigil over America's nuclear arsenal.
"Getting the opportunity to conduct a test launch is probably one of the most coveted assignments we have as missileers," said 1st Lt. Trey Morris, an ICBM combat crew commander with the 740th Missile Squadron at Minot AFB. "We are held to incredibly high standards in all of our training --and rightly so, as we're dealing with the most devastating weapon system yet devised by man on a day-to-day basis -- but if there is one thing in our training that has to be done 100 percent correct at all times, that we are expected to be absolutely perfect on, it's launch procedures. To get the opportunity to actually implement that training in the real world is extremely rewarding, to say the least. Plus, how many people can say that they've launched a real-life ICBM?"
Nuclear deterrence operations and long-range strike capabilities continue to be essential to the U.S. national defense strategy in the 21st century by providing security and stability for the U.S. and its allies in a highly complex and fluid global environment.
"The United States' ability to maintain a strong, credible nuclear deterrent is foundational to U.S. national security and the security of our allies and partners," said Adm. Cecil D. Haney, the U.S. Strategic Command commander. "These test launches, and the valuable lessons we learn from each, ensure USSTRATCOM's strategic forces remain relevant and ready, 24/7, providing flexible and credible options for the President and the Department of Defense."
With multiple nations either currently in possession of nuclear weapons or believed to be attempting to develop them, maintaining a safe, secure and effective deterrent capability is crucial.
"[The nuclear mission] is our most important mission, period, simply because of the sheer destructive power that's involved and because of the criticality of it to our national security," said Frank Kendall, the under secretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, speaking on behalf of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during the 2014 Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference, Sept. 17.
"This is the very foundation of U.S. national security," Kendall said. "No capability we maintain is more important than our nuclear deterrent."