When Barksdale Bombers Are Believed
Better Than Bahrain Boats
By Amir Oren
Two B-52H bombers, which can be configured for either conventional or nuclear missions, took off from a Louisiana US Air Force base last Wednesday and flew all the way to the Persian – or Arabian – Gulf and back, with several refueling meetings with airborne tankers and no landings. It was a 36-hour flight, Midwest to Mideast and back home.
Granted, Louisiana, where Barksdale AFB is located (President George W. Bush was whisked there on 9/11, when America was considered under all-out attack) is really South rather than Midwest, but it sounds better – and the whole point of the B-52 sortie was to be heard, seen and understood. It was announced, filmed and accompanied by a background briefing to Pentagon reporters. Whoever the unnamed briefer was, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of Central Command, also issued a statement regarding the intent behind the demonstrated capability.
“The ability to fly strategic bombers halfway across the world in a non-stop mission and to rapidly integrate them with multiple regional partners demonstrates our close working relationships and our shared commitment to regional security and stability,” stated McKenzie.
Of course, two bombers are only a token force. There are no more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis, where single aircraft were enough to wreak havoc. Indeed, when three weeks ago a similar mission was practiced over the same area, with F-15E fighters below a bomber’s left wing and F-16’s on its right side, it looked like a scene out of World War II, with cumbersome and vulnerable B-17’s ploughing ahead to bomb Germany escorted by Mustang fighters to protect them from Luftwaffe interceptors.
Bombers, on their own, would be easy prey for either enemy fighters or – if they closed in on its territory – Russian-made sophisticated Air Defense systems. The capsule consisting of B-52’s surrounded by F-15’s and F-16’s was an Air Force version of a Navy concept – the Task Force, in which an Aircraft Carrier carries the most potent punch, but must itself be defended by a cocoon of Destroyers and Cruisers.
The prime target audience for the bomber mission was obvious: Iran. With the turn of the year approaching, along with two dates in January – the first anniversary of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani’s death by American strike and the handover of power in Washington from Donald Trump to Joe Biden – tensions were rising vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic. In order to discourage Iranian decision-makers from choosing this sensitive time for mischief, a reminder of America’s strategic might was deemed necessary.
If Iran was the prime audience signaled to, there was also a secondary one – regional allies and partners, especially along the shores of the Gulf and near – or dependent on – the Straits of Hormuz. They need to be reassured, that the Yankees are not going home, at least not all of them, and even if they are, it is neither fatal nor irreversible.
The Trump policy of withdrawing American forces from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan may or may not be continued by Biden (who while not an isolationist in the Trump mode also came out against “forever wars”), but Saudi Arabia, UAE and their neighbors must know that they are not going to be left exposed to the constant threat of Iran, even if US troops are no longer there and Carrier Task Forces whose stay was extended head west on well-deserved liberty.
What Gen. McKenzie wanted to tell both Tehran and Riyadh was that power does not equal presence. Barksdale is not different than Bahrain, where CENTCOM’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered. On one level, it is even more effective to launch from Louisiana – it cannot be retaliated against by Iran. The difference is between forms of deterrence. Against nuclear-armed Russia, and conceptually China, too, the less visible the deterrent the better it is, as a surprise attack would not eliminate it. The most important elements in the American strategic triad are submarines and silo-based missiles. The opposite is true in sub-strategic deterrence, including the Iranian case. One has to brandish might, and when Aircraft Carriers leave the theater, a bomber flight from afar is considered useful for reassuring local allies as well as for deterring foes.
But deterring from what? There are three options – force build-up, deployment and employment. The first one is not feasible. A country may reconsider its priorities through a balance of pressures and incentives, but it can hardly be deterred from gaining an arsenal in the first place for fear that it will be for naught due to a Pearl Harbor-like crippling strike.
The exception to that rule is a nuclear weapon project, for which the intended victim would not sit still. This is the rationale for the Israeli strikes against the Iraqi and Syrian reactors preceded by a futile Iranian attempt against Osiraq. Both components of the global effort to contain nuclear Iran, to coerce (Trump) and cajole (Obama and probably Biden), had a deterrence dimension, a warning that if negotiations or sanctions fail, kinetic force will be used.
In that sense, Iran was to be deterred from breaking the talks or sneaking towards the bomb from under them. But this level of deterrence had explicitly nothing to do with building up the Iranian ballistic missile force or aggressive activities – power projection, in the American jargon – around the Middle East. The nuclear deal had top priority and was therefore not conditioned on other elements deemed nice to have but not vital. To further muddy the picture, in the fight against ISIS Iran was a de-facto ally.
Rather than try to deter Iranian deploynent of forces (including militias and proxies) abroad, the tactic chosen, especially by Israel, was to delay and degrade. This effort has been relatively succesful – part containment, part roll-back, part relocation of Iranian assets to remote (as viewed from Israel) regions of Syria.
As for deterrence of employment of Iran’s force, which is CENTCOM’s current aim, a counter-show of available force is only one of two elements essential to any such equation. The other one is the willingness to use this force to pre-empt or punish. Political will is the elusive and doubtful half of the package – it cannot be pictured with fighters in formation. One may declare it, but not necessarily be believed, whether justifiably or not.
The message carried by the B-52’s (which dropped no munitions, real or dummy, on this run) was left to be absorbed in the region’s capitals. The Iranians could respond by rash miscalculation, but it would be out of charachter for a cautious and crafty group of rulers, however militant and even fanatic their long-range goals probably remain. Through no action of their own, regime change is about to take place in Washington rather than in Tehran. An attack which would unleash those bombers from Barksdale or Tomahawks from in-theater while Trump is still President would be too foolish for them to contemplate – though this being the Middle East, one should never complacently let down one’s guard.