- Four US Air Force B-52 bombers arrived in the UK on Thursday for a bomber group deployment.
- During its flight to the UK, the bombers trained with Norwegian and Swedish fighter jets.
- The exercises come amid heightened tensions in Europe and as NATO increases its focus on the High North.
US Air Force B-52 bombers arrived in Europe for a Bomber Task Force deployment on Thursday after training with Norwegian and Swedish fighter jets before landing at RAF Fairford air base in England.
The exercise provided the first of its kind images of the countries training together, which reflects an already close military relationship that is growing ever closer as Sweden joins NATO and the alliance increases its focus on the high north.
Flying from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to the UK, the four B-52H bombers – accompanied by support equipment and airmen – were joined by two Swedish JAS Gripen fighter jets and two Norwegian F-35s west of Andøya in northern Norway, the Norwegian military said.
One of the B-52s was training with the Norwegian Army at the nearby Setermoen firing range.
“Operations like these require thorough tactical cooperation between the nations, the aircraft types and the participating ground forces,” the Norwegian military said, adding that it was the first time they had released images of the countries’ aircraft “on a mission like this”.
B-52s also flew into Swedish airspace to train with Gripens. They practiced conducting airstrikes, in which the B-52s dropped three GBU-31 bombs on targets identified by Swedish ground forces, according to Sweden’s military, which said it was the first American-Swedish exercise of its kind to use live ammunition.
The training took place at the Vidsel firing range in northern Sweden and was the first American bomber flight over the country since it applied to join NATO this summer. That involved a nuclear-capable B-52 and one that is “non-nuclear.” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
Sweden has been a NATO partner for decades and has trained closely with the alliance, as has Finland. Their membership, which NATO members are now voting on, would extend further benefits, including the alliance’s mutual defense protection.
“Witnessing our nation’s JAS Gripen fighter jet flying alongside several of America’s most powerful military aircraft visually demonstrates the strength and solidarity of NATO.” said Major General Carl-Johan Edström, commander of the Air Force.
“These moments really capture the military power that exists within NATO – as individual nations, but, more importantly, as a united alliance,” added Edstrom.
Stockholm and Helsinki applied for NATO membership in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. That war has shown the value of being able to conduct long-distance operations, Edström said in a separate release, adding that Thursday’s exercises increase Sweden’s defense capabilities “significantly”.
Sweden and Finland would bring about 250 modern fighter jets to NATO, including Sweden’s advanced Gripens and the F-35s that Finland will receive in the coming years — additions that NATO officials are enthusiastic about.
Sweden’s participation on Thursday “is vital” and its NATO membership “will give us increased joint combat power.” said Major General Rolf Folland, head of the Norwegian Air Force. “The air dimension is unique in military operations. Air control has great advantages and gives ground and naval forces the conditions for success.”
Norway’s air force is already looking into setting up “a joint Nordic air operations center,” which would support planning and “significantly strengthen our collective defense,” Folland added.
Tensions in Europe have continued to rise since Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014. Ailing relations with Moscow, combined with changes caused by climate change, have drawn increased military attention to the Arctic, where Russia has a large military presence.
The US Navy and other NATO navies have been spending more time in the Norwegian and Barents Seas to build competence in Arctic waters, where they have not spent much time since the Cold War.
American bombers have also been more active over the Arctic.
In early 2021, the B-1B was deployed to central Norway, operating from Norwegian soil for the first time. Last September, B-2s deployed to Iceland for the first time, operating from what is seen as a valuable outpost in the North Atlantic. B-52s also make regular flights over the Arctic, often during Bomber Task Force deployments.
Bombers on previous BTF deployments flew close to Russian borders, but under the Biden administration, those flights have been less “in your face,” Kristensen told Insider this spring.
U.S. bombers remain a visible presence over Europe, and their deployments “provide a major opportunity to improve our combined readiness, promote interoperability, and demonstrate our global power projection alongside our allies,” General James Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said Thursday.
“Our ultimate strength in the European area of operations is joint force lethality — our ability to train and operate with our allies and partners as a layered, capable and credible battle team,” Hecker said.