B-2 stealth bombers are learning new tricks in Europe, but it’s not only about sending a message to Russia

A US Air Force B-2 bomber, two RAF F-35 Lightning IIs, and two US Air Force F-15 Eagles in formation behind a KC-135 Stratotanker on a training mission for Bomber Task Force Europe, September 16, 2019.

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A US Air Force B-2 bomber, two RAF F-35 Lightning IIs, and two US Air Force F-15 Eagles in formation behind a KC-135 Stratotanker on a training mission for Bomber Task Force Europe, September 16, 2019.
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US Air Force/Senior Airman Thomas Barley

  • B-2 Spirit stealth bombers landed in the United Kingdom in August for deployment as part of the Bomber Task Force.
  • Within days of arriving, the B-2s had done several new things that may have been as much about sending a message to rivals as they were about testing pilots and crews.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Three US Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, airmen, and support equipment from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri arrived in the United Kingdom on August 27 for a Bomber Task Force deployment.

It’s not the first time B-2s have flown out of RAF Fairford, the Air Force’s forward operating location for the bombers.

The presence is a “continuation” of what the US military and European partners have done since Russia seized Crimea in 2014, said Jim Townsend, adjunct senior fellow in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s a matter of just continuing to show that we can operate at any level, whether it’s with a B-2 or it’s a lower level, [and] then we can operate where we need to in Europe, including in the Arctic.”

But within days of arriving the B-2s had done several new things that may have been as much about sending a message to rivals as they were about testing pilots and crews.

“B-2s and bombers have always been as much about the signaling as the capability,” said Christopher Skaluba, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

See what the B-2s have been up to and for whom their message is meant.


In addition to training at Fairford, the B-2s were to train in Europe with Air Force units and other partners, which “contributes to our readiness and enables us to build enduring and strategic relationships necessary to confront a broad range of global challenges,” US Air Forces Europe said in a release.

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Airman 1st Class Austin Sawchuk, a crew chief assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing, marshals in a B-2 on the flight line at RAF Fairford, August 27, 2019.
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US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Kayla White

A day after arriving in the UK, a B-2 landed in Iceland — the bomber’s first time there.

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A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber lands at Keflavik Air Base in Iceland, August 28, 2019. It was the B-2 bomber’s first time landing in Iceland.
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US Air Force/Senior Airman Thomas Barley

Using “strategic bombers in Iceland helps exercise Keflavik Air Base as a forward location for the B-2, ensuring that it is engaged, postured and ready with credible force,” US Air Forces Europe said in a caption on one of the accompanying photos.

Despite that phrasing, “Iceland is not considered a forward operating location similar to RAF Fairford,” US Air Forces Europe said in an emailed statement.

“Training outside the US enables aircrew and airmen to become familiar with other theaters and airspace and enhances enduring skills and relationships necessary to confront a broad range of global challenges in support of the National Defense Strategy,” the statement said.


“There’s a proximity there, and also there is a redundancy,” Townsend said of Iceland. “You’ve got Fairford, you’ve got Keflavik, you’ve got other places … it’s not just one spot that if you crater the runway that’s it.”

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509th Logistics Readiness Squadron fuel-distribution operators conduct hot-pit refueling on a B-2 bomber at Keflavik Air Base, August 28, 2019.
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US Air Force/Senior Airman Thomas Barley

Astride sea lines between the North Atlantic and the Arctic, Iceland also likely provides “geographical advantages in terms of things we’re worried about the Russians doing,” Skaluba said. “There’s probably, for certain missions or certain mission sets, a little bit of an advantage to use [Keflavik] over UK bases.”

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US Air Force fuel-distribution operators conduct hot-pit refueling on a B-2 at Keflavik Air Base, August 28, 2019.
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US Air Force/Senior Airman Thomas Barley

Russian forces are increasingly active in the North Atlantic, the North Sea, the Arctic, the Norwegian Sea, and in the GIUK Gap, which refers to the waters between Greenland, Iceland, and the UK – “so in and around Iceland with their own kind of high-end capabilities including nuclear subs and advanced fighters,” Skaluba said.

“So I think that this is a signal that the US, the UK, [and] NATO, are watching Russia closely, in clearly a little bit of, ‘Hey, we can match you with high-end capabilities in this geography,'” Skaluba said.


The message may not only be for Russia.

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A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber taxis at Keflavik Air Base, August 28, 2019.
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US Air Force/Senior Airman Thomas Barley

“There’s a lot of Chinese investments,” Skaluba said. “There’s a big Chinese embassy in Reykjavik. I think that it’s in the first instance about the Russians, but there’s clearly some broader signaling going on, and I don’t think it’s a mistake that there’s a big Chinese presence in Reykjavik and that we landed the bombers there.”


A day after the Iceland landing, B-2s flew along the English coast with Royal Air Force F-35Bs. It was the first time the stealth bomber had flown with the British Joint Strike Fighter — and with any non-US F-35.

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UK F-35B Lightning fighter jets fly with US Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bombers for the first time, August 29, 2019.
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US Air Force/UK Ministry of Defense

Source: The Aviationist


“I think this may be just showing that when the US and the UK team up militarily, either bilaterally or within NATO, there’s very few that can match our high-end capabilities,” Skaluba said.

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A US Air Force B-2 Spirit flies above the English countryside near Dover with two RAF F-35 jets, August 29, 2019.
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US Air Force/UK Ministry of Defense

The B-2 and the F-35 are “strategic assets in different ways, so it might just be reminder to all of our competitors globally that when we work together we can really bring some firepower,” Skaluba added.

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Two US Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bombers fly alongside two RAF F-35B Lightnings near the White Cliffs of Dover, August 29, 2019.
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US Air Force/UK Ministry of Defense

Like the B-2, the F-35 is a stealth aircraft, meant to evade air-defense systems like the ones stationed around Europe, particularly Russian systems across Eastern Europe.

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A US Air Force B-2 Spirit flies along the English coast near Dover with two RAF F-35 jets.
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US Air Force/UK Ministry of Defense

Russia’s Baltic exclave, Kaliningrad, bristles with anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD, weaponry, and Moscow has added such A2/AD systems to Crimea since its 2014 seizure.

Russian “A2/AD capability [runs] from the high north through Kaliningrad, down to Crimea and all the way down into [Russia’s] base at Tartus in Syria,” Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, told Business Insider in late 2018, creating what he called “an arc of A2/AD.”


The first-of-its-kind joint flight also came at a time when the US-UK special relationship might not be in the best shape, Skaluba added.

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A US Air Force B-2 bomber over the English countryside near Dover, August 29, 2019.
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Royal Air Force

“This is kind of a reminder that the UK is the US partner of choice in security and defense, and frankly the UK is one of the few militaries globally that can…operate with the US at the high-end of the capability spectrum,” Skaluba said.


In the darkness on September 5, a B-2 met a US tanker over the Norwegian Sea. The bomber was on “an extended duration sortie over the Arctic Circle,” US Air Forces Europe said. “This familiarization was the B-2’s first mission this far north in the European theater.”

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A B-2 Spirit approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker to receive fuel over the Norwegian Sea, September 5, 2019.
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US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan

The US has been more active in the Arctic in recent years, largely out of concern about competition in the region, particularly with Russia and China, as climate change makes it more accessible.

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A B-2 Spirit approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker for refueling over the Norwegian Sea, September 5, 2019.
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US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan

In October 2018, a US aircraft carrier sailed above the Arctic Circle for the first time since the Cold War.


The B-2s first Arctic flight may have been made possible by changing conditions there. “But really it’s about the signaling,” Skaluba said.

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A B-2 Spirit approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker over the Norwegian Sea, September 5, 2019.
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US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan

The US, NATO, and Arctic countries are concerned “that Russia is being more aggressive on the security front in the Arctic,” and China has sought a larger role in the region. “We’re seeing competitor moves into the Arctic in different ways,” Skaluba said.

Russia shares an Arctic border with Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and all three countries are close to the Kola Peninsula base that is home to both Russia’s Northern Fleet and nuclear weapons storage and test facilities.

Norway is the only one of the three that is a member of NATO, but all the Nordic countries have kept a close eye on Russian missile tests in the region and on its Arctic combat forces.


“There was a time right after Crimea when the Obama administration didn’t want to do anything to provoke the Russians,” Townsend said.

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A B-2 Spirit approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker over the Norwegian Sea, September 5, 2019.
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US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan

“So just sending B-52s over the Baltic was something that had to be cleared at a pretty high level,” Townsend said, adding that there has always been recognition of not wanting to provoke Russia by sending bombers close to its borders. “For whatever reason, the feeling must’ve been that was worth doing this time around.”

Skaluba also pointed to a recent speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a meeting of the Arctic Council, in which Pompeo said the Arctic had “become an arena of global power and competition.”

Within the eight-member Arctic Council, which includes Russia, “there’s still a lot of practical cooperation … but I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that Pompeo got everybody a little bit upset … talking about [how] we need to talk security issues, and then the US sends some big-time military assets up into the region.”

“So I think this a bit of a banging of the drum or pounding on the table from the US that we need to think about the Arctic in security terms, and on our own we’re going to do that, no matter what anybody else does. But it’s a clear signal to the Russians and the Chinese, no doubt.”


The B-2s have continued to train around Europe in September, including a trip to the Azores where the bombers conducted hot-pit refueling, in which ground crew refuels an aircraft while its engines are running, allowing it to get back into the air as quickly as possible.

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A B-2 stealth bomber takes off from Lajes Field in the Azores, Portugal, September 9, 2019.
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US Air Force/Ricky Baptista

“As a fulcrum point of the Atlantic Air Bridge, Lajes Field provides the US Department of Defense and allied nations a power-projection platform for credible combat forces across Europe and Africa,” US Air Forces Europe said in a release.


The bombers also performed touch-and-go drills at Fairford, during which the bombers land and take off again without coming to a complete stop, allowing pilots to practice many landings in a short period of time.

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A B-2 performs a touch-and-go at RAF Fairford, September 11, 2019.
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US Air Force/Senior Airman Thomas Barley