The U.S. Air Force’s latest deployment of B-1B Lancers to the highly strategic Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam has resulted in no shortage of awe-inspiring official photography of the swing-wing bombers in action. As well as posing for the photographer in the air and on the ground during its current Pacific sojourn, the four ‘Bones’ at Andersen have also taken part in the large-scale Valiant Shield exercise. In addition, the bombers have worked alongside Australian allies, reflecting an increasingly important relationship in the region, part of a trilateral advanced defense agreement that also involves the United Kingdom.
You can read the full background to the current B-1 Bomber Task Force, or BTF, mission at Andersen AFB here, but since our first report it’s become clear that the Air Force has been taking every opportunity to visually document these always impressive-looking aircraft during their time in and around Guam. The following images in the main part of this article are among the best we’ve seen of the Bone, cementing its reputation as one of the Air Force’s most photogenic aircraft.
While Bomber Task Force missions are no longer conducted at their previous tempo on Guam, the ability to project long-range air power to the Pacific outpost remains a critical one for the Air Force. This is especially the case whenever tensions with North Korea become heightened, which led to some speculation that the latest BTF might be connected to a long-expected nuclear test by Pyongyang. While a seventh North Korean nuclear test remains a distinct possibility, the current BTF posture means that Air Force Global Strike Command bombers are expected to be able to rapidly move out to Guam under a much less predictable deployment plan to respond to such contingencies.
For now, at least, the Bones have been working with allies in the region as well as conducting the major Valiant Shield 22 exercise with other U.S. forces. The ninth iteration of Valiant Shield 22 concluded on June 17, 2022, after 12 days of joint operations at sea, in the air, on land, and in cyberspace. The maneuvers came to an end with a SINKEX, or sink at-sea live-fire training exercises, during which the decommissioned frigate ex-USS Vandegrift (FFG-48) was targeted with a range of munitions, including a Standard Missile 6, or SM-6, in surface-to-surface mode. This was all part of a demonstration of what the service term “coordinated multi-domain, multi-axis, long-range maritime strikes.” B-1Bs from Guam were also involved in the SINKEX, employing undisclosed munitions, perhaps the AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) or other precision ordnance.
The deployment to Guam also allowed the B-1s to participate in Exercise Diamond Storm 22, the culmination of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Warfare Instructor Course (AWIC), which took place from May 30 to June 24. AWIC is a six-month course that trains instructor candidates for various different RAAF platforms, with talented aviators being selected to take part before returning to their units as instructors. Overall, the process is broadly similar to the U.S. Air Force’s Weapons School Course or the U.S. Navy’s Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center warfare schools, including TOPGUN.
While the strategic importance of Andersen Air Force Base remains undisputable, the survivability of the facility and other military infrastructure on the island has begun to be seriously questioned as of late, especially as China expands its options for striking targets across the wider Asia Pacific region. This has led to a renewed emphasis on protecting the island against attack, including enhanced defenses to better respond to a missile attack from China, or other potential regional adversaries. To address the cruise missile threat, in particular, the U.S. has also deployed Iron Dome batteries to the island in an experimental initiative capacity. Meanwhile, the ability of aircraft to operate from austere airstrips on Guam to provide a degree of independence from Andersen has also been trialed of late, although this is not an option for bombers like the B-1.
Beyond Guam, the Air Force is also investing in other airfields in the region that B-1s potentially could use. Prominent among these is the expansion of Tinian International Airport to act as a divert airfield for the U.S. military in a crisis. This major project should provide an alternative operating location to Andersen and is located just to the northeast of Guam.
Clearly, however, the B-1 remains part of Air Force plans when it comes to power projection in the Asia Pacific theater. This is despite the fact that the Lancer fleet has been significantly reduced of late. In September last year, the service completed the retirement of a group of 17 B-1Bs, giving up the most worn-out examples, to help consolidate the fleet and improve its readiness rates.
In the background, there has been a catalog of issues that have affected the B-1’s already less-than-stellar availability rate. Earlier this year, a B-1B was involved in a flight-line incident at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, when one of its engines caught fire while undergoing maintenance. Among other recent problems faced by the Lancer fleet in recent years was an issue with the augmenter fuel pump filter housing that led to a fleet-wide grounding last year. Another significant grounding came about as the result of a failed ejection and subsequent emergency landing in Midland, Texas, which we wrote about here and here.
Until the final replacement of the B-1 by the B-21 Raider stealth bomber, a reduced fleet of 45 B-1Bs will continue to be available for Bomber Task Force missions, including periodic deployments to Guam. With plans for the B-21 to enter service at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota sometime in the mid-to-late 2020s, followed by Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and then Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, there will certainly be many more opportunities for photographers to capture the B-1 in its element before it flies its last mission.