In another unprecedented show of force aimed at Russia, U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bombers flew from the United Kingdom to Ukraine airspace earlier today. After arriving there, they orbited for an extended period right at the edge of the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and near areas under the control of Kremlin-supported separatists. These sorties are the latest in a flurry of geopolitical posturing between Washington and Moscow and come a week after a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet performed a potentially dangerous maneuver in front of another B-52H flying over the Black Sea.
Three B-52Hs, with the call signs Julia 51, 52, and 53 departed RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom on Sept. 4, 2020. There are conflicting reports about whether the third bomber took part in the mission to Ukraine, but only two of them were ever visible on online flight tracking software. Regardless, the bombers subsequently returned to Fairford, where a total of six of them – all of which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons – have been forward-deployed as part of a Bomber Task Force mission since Aug. 22.
After they had entered Ukrainian airspace, the B-52Hs flew to the southeastern portion of the country and entered a racetrack-like orbit along the coast of the Sea of Azov. The orbit's southwesternmost point was over the Ukrainian port city of Henichesk, which is around 20 miles, at its closest, from the Crimean Peninsula. The northeasternmost tip of the route was just south of the city of Melitopol, around 115 miles or so from areas under the control of separatists in Eastern Ukraine that Russian forces are actively supporting.
There are unconfirmed reports Ukrainian Su-27 Flankers flew with the bombers during the sorties. In May 2020, Ukrainian Flankers, as well as MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets, flew with B-1 bombers in the region. At least one U.K. Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoon, flying all the way from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, also appears to have joined the bombers for a time.
In addition, a number of U.S. aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, as well as those from the United Kingdom, were seen operating in the area at the time. This included an Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint spy plane, as well as an RAF Airseeker, which is derived from the Rivet Joint. A RAF Sentinel R1, a radar platform based on the Bombardier Global Express business jet, was also present for a time.
The heavy ISR presence makes good sense as these B-52H sorties could only have prompted various responses from Russian forces in Crimea and elsewhere in the region. The RC-135V/W, Airseeker, and Sentinel R1 aircraft are all capable of collecting various signals and electronic intelligence, and would have been well-positioned to gather information about how Russia's integrated air defense networks and other command and control nodes reacted to the B-52s.
The ability of the RC-135V/Ws and the Airseeker, especially, to detect, classify, and geolocate various types of emitters, including air defense radars, means that they would have had a particularly good opportunity to help add to the known "electronic order of battle" of Russian forces in the broader Black Sea region. Russia has established a heavy air defense presence in Crimea since it illegally occupied it in 2014, including the deployment of both S-400 and S-300 surface-to-air missile systems at nine different sites.
Despite some reports, this is not actually the first time B-52s have flown inside Ukraine. In 1994, a B-52, along with a B-1 bomber and KC-10A Extender aerial refueling tanker flew to Poltava Air Base in northwestern Ukraine to mark the 50th anniversary of Operation Frantic during World War II. Operation Frantic was a so-called "shuttle bombing" effort in which U.S. bombers flew from bases in the United Kingdom and Italy, struck their targets in Germany and elsewhere, and then landed in bases in Ukraine, which was then a Soviet Socialist Republic. The last of these missions took place in September 1944.
These latest sorties could ostensibly be intended to mark the anniversary of the end of Operation Frantic, but this seems unlikely. This year is the 76th anniversary, not typically one the deserves special attention, and the bombers did not fly near any of the three bases that supported the World War II bombing missions.
It seems much more likely that flying at least two nuclear-capable B-52s into Ukraine, and this particular part of the country, is meant to demonstrate America's support for Ukraine. At the same time, it presents a visible challenge to Russia with regards to its continued occupation of Crimea and its support of separatists fighting authorities in Kyiv.
The Sea of Azov was also the site of a very serious altercation between the Ukrainian Navy and Russian security forces in November 2018, in which Russia detained 24 Ukrainian sailors and impounded three Ukrainian vessels for nearly a year. Ukrainian authorities said the two gunboats and the tug were in extremely poor condition when Russia eventually returned them, something that the Kremlin vehemently denied.
This latest B-52H mission would be in line with a number of past bomber operations in the region, as well. Russian Flankers intercepted at least one of these bombers flying over the Black Sea on Aug. 28, with one of them conducting a possibly dangerous "thumping" maneuver very close to the American aircraft. The bomber was one of four that sortied out that day from Fairford to fly over the airspace of all NATO members in Europe, in an unprecedented demonstration of the alliance's solidarity to any potential adversaries, including Russia.
A Russian Flanker also followed one of the B-52s into Danish airspace during that mission. There seems to have been a deliberate decision to keep the bombers inside Ukrainian airspace this time, which would have reduced the chance of any kind of intercept.
In addition, as noted, in May 2020, B-1 bombers also trained in the region together with Ukrainian fighter jets, including conducting mock anti-ship operations clearly meant to send a signal to the Kremlin and the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet. Last year, a B-52, also part of a detachment at Fairford for a short-term deployment, made a run in the Black Sea at Crimea that mirrored what one might expect to see in an actual strike on targets there involving the employment of air-launched cruise missiles, too.
This latest B-52 operation is just the latest in a string of tit-for-tat shows of force and other posturing between the United States and Russia in both Europe and the Pacific, which the War Zone has been following closely and that you can read about in more detail in this recent story. NATO is also meeting today to discuss how it might respond to the assassination attempt against a major Russian opposition political figure, which involved a secretive chemical weapon that strongly ties the attack to the Kremlin.
Sending B-52s to southeastern Ukraine is sure to draw new responses from the Kremlin, which may feel a need to further escalate with its own shows of force in response.
UPDATE: 12:50pm EST
U.S. European Command (EUCOM) has confirmed that three B-52 bombers took part in the mission over Ukraine today, as did Ukrainian fighter jets, in a press release. The full release is as follows:
"Three U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber aircraft from the 5th Bomb Wing, Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, conducted vital integration training with Ukrainian fighters Friday inside Ukraine’s airspace."
"Friday’s strategic bomber mission is part of the long-planned deployment of six B-52s to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, England. The mission provided partners valuable midair training. In addition, the mission demonstrated how forward-located aircraft and crews, such as those in the B-52 units, enable collective defense capabilities and provide the U.S., NATO Allies and partners strategic and operational breadth to deter Russia and assure Allies and partners."
"More than 200 related missions have been conducted since the Bomber Task Force launched operations in the European theater two years ago. These ongoing bomber missions showcase the U.S. Air Force’s ability to continually execute flying missions, sustain readiness and support Allies and partners across Europe, regardless of external challenges to include the current global COVID-19 crisis response."
UPDATE: 2:55pm EST
The Ukrainian Air Force has now released video footage showing its Su-27 Flankers and MiG-29 Fulcrums flying with all three B-52s over Ukraine.
Contact the author: Joe@thedrive.com