Two U.S. Air Force (USAF) B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers flew a patrol over the South China Sea on March 13, according to U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).
“Two B-52H Stratofortress bombers took off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and conducted routine training in the vicinity of the South China Sea March 13, 2019 (HST), before returning to base,” PACAF said in a statement to The Diplomat.
“U.S. aircraft regularly operate in the South China Sea in support of allies, partners, and a free and open Indo-Pacific. U.S. Pacific Air Forces bombers have flown from Guam for more than a decade as part of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Continuous Bomber Presence operations.”
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Both bombers were refueled mid-air by a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, according to flight tracking data.
This marks the second time in 10 days that the USAF has dispatched bombers to the contested waters. Two B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers flew a patrol over the East and South China Seas on March 4.
The B-52Hs are part of a USAF contingent currently forward-deployed to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam in the Western Pacific. USAF B-52H bomber units have been deploying to Guam on a rotational basis since January 2018 following a 17-month interval.
As I explained previously:
The service redeployed the B-52H to Guam as part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s continuous bomber presence mission in the Asia-Pacific region in January. B-52Hs last deployed to Guam in July 2016. The B-52Hs took over responsibility from the B-1B Lancer heavy strategic bombers of the USAF’s 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron (EBS) of the 7th Bomb Wing, which deployed to the region in February 2017.
The USAF has routinely stationed B-1B, B-52H, and B-2 Spirit bombers in Guam since 2004. For a brief period in 2018, all three types of aircraft were deployed on the island. Both the B-52H and B-2 Spirit are capable of carrying and launching nuclear weapons.
PACAF does not publicly comment on bomber payloads and their nuclear capabilities. “We do not discuss the nuclear capabilities of our operational bomber aircraft to that level of specificity for security reasons,” a PACAF spokesperson said in a January 30 email to The Diplomat.
B-52Hs have conducted patrols over the East and South China Seas in recent months. B-52Hs last transited the East and South China Seas in September and November 2018 respectively.
The USAF presently deploys 58 B-52H long-range, heavy strategic bombers. The B-52H can fly at high subsonic speeds at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet (15,166.6 meters) and can be armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles or a conventional payload of up to 70,000 pounds (31,500 kilograms).
Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), 41 B-52Hs were denuclearized.