Bones over Southwest Asia Part III

  • Published
  • By Steven J. Merrill
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's Note: Following is the third of a three-part feature about B-1B Lancer crews conducting missions in Southwest Asia following the attacks of 9/11.)

By the end of October 2001, nearly all of the fixed targets in Afghanistan had been destroyed during Operation Enduring Freedom, and the role of the B-1B Lancer changed to ground support. B-1 aircrews proved it to be a tremendous combat asset during the initial attacks, and continue to provide critical support for combatant commanders today.

"The weapons system has evolved by leaps and bounds since then, but the fact we were dropping a large number of guided munitions really revolutionized how we think about air warfare now," said Col. Mark Weatherington, 28th Bomb Wing commander, who participated in the initial OEF deployment as a major assigned to the 77th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth. "Certainly, we are much more capable from a communications and sensor standpoint than we were 10 years ago. We are better integrated with the entire joint force, more lethal, and doing more diverse things for the force particularly in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance)."

Lt. Col. Brian Mead, 37th Bomb Squadron commander, added that ground commanders have a number of very capable weapons systems at their disposal, each of which brings its own specific capabilities. But, time and again, it is the B-1 being requested.

"I think the strengths of the B-1 for this particular mission lie in its precision, persistence, performance, and payload," he said. "It has the precision to accurately engage a variety of target types day or night in all weather conditions; the persistence to stay in the CAS (close air support) stack and provide presence and a variety of effects based on the tactical situation on the ground for an extended period of time; the performance to cover long distances quickly in response to troops in contact; and the payload to provide exactly the right amount of firepower necessary in the right place at the right time."

Just as the B-1 has evolved, those who participated in the first rounds of the war recognize how they and their colleagues have grown.

"The B-1 community has always advocated for itself as having more potential than outsiders gave it credit for," said Lt. Col. Barry Hutchison, 28th Operations Group deputy commander. "A spirit of innovation has pervaded the crews; highly-motivated weapons officers and tacticians came up with a number of improvised solutions to B-1 shortfalls (such as GPS-driven moving map and beyond-line-of-sight messaging) and new tactics (JDAM pattern management) that improved B-1 capabilities by orders of magnitude and put it at the forefront of combatant commanders' desires for airpower."

Mead echoed the sentiment.

"I continue to be summarily impressed by the captains of today who are being asked to do so much more than my generation did when we were their age," he said. "Every time a B-1 launches on an OEF combat sortie, they have the potential of making a strategic impact, both positive and negative, on the war effort. We pile a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of these young Airmen, asking them to make very difficult decisions with lives on the line in a very dynamic -- and oftentimes confusing - environment, and they never let us down. It's truly remarkable."

In October 2001, the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron dropped more than three million pounds of ordnance and generated an impressive 91.3 percent effectiveness rating. Since 2001, B-1 aircrews from Ellsworth and Dyess Air Force Base, Texas have conducted continuous combat operations in Southwest Asia, providing around-the-clock support to combatant commanders.

Home to two of three operational B-1 combat squadrons in the nation, Ellsworth provides the lion's share of the commitment, deploying 12 of every 18 months. Currently, more than 300 Ellsworth Airmen are deployed to Southwest Asia supporting missions in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. Aircrews from Ellsworth are providing critical air presence, precision strike, and surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to support military objectives in the region. Airmen in a variety of non-aviation roles are performing a wide range of sortie generation and mission assurance duties.

"Our operations tempo remains hearty," said Lt. Col. John Martin, 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron commander. "Our maintainers and aviators work tirelessly while deployed to orchestrate the mission. Our maintainers and preflight crews have readily endured extreme heat each day without complaint."

Martin added that he with whom he serves with are extremely proud of the mission they are continuing that began more than 10 years ago.

"It's a humbling experience to have been a part of the Ellsworth effort both in 2001 and again in 2011. When OEF began, I was convinced there could be no greater defining moment for a B-1 aviator. To be honest, as big as that moment was, it pales in comparison to serving with the (34th BS) Thunderbirds as their commander. It's only fitting that we are closing out a decade of OEF as we started it - flying sorties over Afghanistan in steadfast support of Americans on the ground."