DARWIN, Australia -- Cruising at altitude, hidden from sight by distance, Air Force bomber crews have the birds-eye view of the battlefield.
Whether in the mountains of Afghanistan or desert plains, when operating close to friendly forces on the ground, the teams rely on the help from liaison officers who are up-close to the target and can guide them.
To practice the skills necessary for safe air-to-ground integration, Australian and U.S. service members conducted a close air support (CAS) exercise, April 2-7.
Conducted as part of the Enhanced Air Cooperation (EAC) initiative, the exercise aimed to foster greater integration between U.S. air elements and the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) to enhance interoperability across the full spectrum of air operations.
The five-day exercise involved members of the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 4, No. 77 and No. 13 Squadrons in cooperation with U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortresses bombers assigned to the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron deployed from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.
Operating from RAAF Base Darwin, daily multi-hour sorties took U.S. bomber crews across the vast Australian outback to training ranges in Australia’s south, where they coordinated air-to-ground engagements with the Australian Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACS).
“Flying on station in a different country like this presents the crews with numerous challenges they are not going to see in the U.S. such as long-range communications and operations with foreign forces they have not interacted with before,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Kevin Smith, 20th EBS assistant director of operations and U.S. exercise lead. “The training familiarizes us with the Australian teams and vice versa. This allows us to better respond to contingencies together.”
During training scenarios with B-52s cruising far overhead, Australian JTACS were able to assess targets on the ground and relay to aircrews the needs of soldiers in the field. Weapon systems officers aboard the bomber then took the information to tailor the most effective support from the air to maximize the capabilities at their disposal.
“The crews simulated combat operations in support of Australian ground forces with U.S. airpower,” Smith said. “This is something the Airmen and Soldiers will see real world. There is significant benefit of training with foreign forces so that your first exposure to it is not in combat.
“Working with the RAAF has been an absolute pleasure,” Smith continued. “They are long-standing and skilled partners in the air.”
Working with bomber support
Originally designed as a long-range, nuclear-capable strategic bomber, aircrews affectionately call their aircraft the B.U.F.F., or “Big, Ugly, Fat Fellow.” However, despite their unwieldy exterior, B-52s have long been augmented with modernized targeting equipment and sophisticated weapons systems that have evolved the veteran airframe to a viable close air support platform.
In 2006 Australia became the first U.S. ally to receive Joint Terminal Attack Controller accreditation from the U.S. Joint Force Command. For over a decade since, Australian JTACS have utilized U.S. B-52 and B-1B Lancer aircraft in the CAS role during real-world operations — making the EAC training crucial for crews in the air and on the ground.
“As the Australian JTACS prepare for their next deployment, we are here to provide the presence of American aircraft,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Elise Manley, 20th EBS flight commander and B-52 electronic warfare instructor. “By operating as we would in real scenarios, we help prepare them to work with aircraft they may not be used to working with - but will see downrange.”
JTACs attached to ground units must give precise directions and clear instructions on the radio to allow bomber crews to effectively put bombs on target. By relaying a ground commander’s intentions to the pilots, the operators mitigate the potential for error and protect lives.
To simulate an active air space operators can expect during combat, the Stratofortress was joined by Australian F/A-18A Hornets and PC-9 trainer aircraft. This challenged controllers to deconflict aircraft of various speeds and altitudes interacting in the same limited airspace - just as they would in a combat mission.
“The training has been great and very useful,” Manley said. “We’ve been able to run non-stop, three-hour scenarios. There is no time to breathe or take a break — which is good because it gets us back into the combat mindset and provides useful and effective training for the real-world.
“Hearing different voices on the radio makes for great training - even if there are just small linguistic differences,” Manley said. “It’s a different way to train so we are not stuck in our own bubble of how we do things. It allows us to adapt and puts us back on our toes.”
Strategic bombers offer enhanced payload with a variety of weapons that can put pressure on enemy positions. The simulated B-52 scenarios offered a diversity in possible weapons, giving JTACS on the ground the full gamut of what they may see in combat.
“The EAC exercise provided a unique opportunity to undertake air-to-surface integration with a military aviation asset that is not part of the RAAF fleet,” said RAAF Wing Commander Michael J. Duyvene de Wit, commander of No. 4 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown. “The persistence, payload and reach of the B-52 was a decisive asset in recent counter-ISIL operations. The opportunity to validate and develop tactics, techniques and procedures with the bomber was fantastic.”
The varied nature of the weapons available allows JTACs to choose weaponeering solutions matching the intended target and intent, while fuel range extends reach and on-station time in the air.
“The employment of bomber aircraft such as the B-52 in a CAS role requires JTACs to slightly modify their TTPs to exploit the strengths of the platform,” Duyvene de Wit said “While we can teach this in theory, the ability to brief, execute and debrief maximizes the training benefit for all involved.”
Keeping troops linked, safe
To enforce joint integration of air support, the training was also supported by ground liaison officer (GLO), linking air mission planners to the tactical requirements of infantry and artillery units.
“You want to train how you fight — and the B-52 bombers come with their own unique sensors, ordnance loads and tactics, techniques and procedures in how they provide fire support,” said U.S. Army Capt. Craig Osbeck, 5th Battlefield Coordination Detachment GLO, assigned to the 36th Wing. “Bringing the aircraft out here for training allows JTACS to fine-tune their workflow to the intricacies of speed, payload and maneuverability, that affect how the B-52 supports the mission on the ground.”
As an Army liaison, Osbeck facilitates communication and knowledge sharing with ground forces before bombers even leave the airfield. With a grasp of the operational plans of the artillery and infantry community, he equips aviators with crucial knowledge of the needs of their teams below — ensuring seamless air-to-ground synchronization.
“I’ve never been in the air, looking at a fire-fight from above,” Osbeck said. “Much like watching football on TV, that is a unique view, but if you don’t know what the play is going to be, you won’t be able to help your team. I’ve always been the guy on the ground. It’s our job to give pilots the task and purpose of what each of the ground units is going to do – in order to reliably prevent civilian or friendly military casualties. This training allowed us to break with assumptions and create understanding to keep teams safe and in the fight.”
The B-52H’s presence at RAAF Darwin marks the second EAC event of 2018. The first, held at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in February, tested and improved the aeromedical evacuation capabilities shared by the two air forces. RAAF Darwin has previously hosted the B-52s during training exercises in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
With their training mission complete in Australia, the B-52s returned to Andersen AFB, where they support U.S. Pacific Command’s long-running continuous bomber presence.
However, one lone Stratofortress remains on Australian soil: For 29 years now, a U.S. B-52 is on permanent display at the Darwin Aviation Museum - directly adjacent to RAAF Base Darwin.
Given as a gift to Australia in March 1989 as a sign of the nations’ enduring defense partnership, the bomber called “Darwin’s Pride” sits without weapons or bomb-racks as a symbol of hope for peace throughout the region.
While its active counterparts roared off toward their remote station in the Pacific, Darwin’s Pride remains a symbol for the aircraft’s historic deterrence goal - a plaque in its bomb bay reading, “Rest in Peace.”