The Australian and U.S. service members concluded a close air support (CAS) exercise conducted as part of the Enhanced Air Cooperation (EAC) initiative, April 2-7, 2018.
The exercise aimed to foster greater integration between U.S. air elements and the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) to enhance interoperability across the full spectrum of air operations.
The five-day exercise involved members of the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) No. 4, No. 77 and No. 13 Squadrons in cooperation with U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortresses strategic bombers assigned to the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron deployed from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.
Operating from RAAF Base Darwin, daily multi-hour sorties took U.S. bomber crews across the vast Australian outback to training ranges in Australia’s south, where they coordinated air-to-ground engagements with the Australian Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACS).
“Flying on station in a different country like this presents the crews with numerous challenges they are not going to see in the U.S. such as long-range communications and operations with foreign forces they have not interacted with before,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Kevin Smith, 20th EBS assistant director of operations and U.S. exercise lead. “The training familiarizes us with the Australian teams and vice versa. This allows us to better respond to contingencies together.”
During training scenarios with B-52s cruising far overhead, Australian JTACS were able to assess targets on the ground and relay to aircrews the needs of soldiers in the field. Weapon systems officers aboard the bomber then took the information to tailor the most effective support from the air to maximize the capabilities at their disposal.
“The crews simulated combat operations in support of Australian ground forces with U.S. airpower,” Smith said. “This is something the Airmen and Soldiers will see real world. There is significant benefit of training with foreign forces so that your first exposure to it is not in combat.
Originally designed as a long-range, nuclear-capable strategic bomber, aircrews affectionately call their aircraft the B.U.F.F., or “Big, Ugly, Fat Fellow.” However, despite their unwieldy exterior, B-52s have long been augmented with modernized targeting equipment and sophisticated weapons systems that have evolved the veteran airframe to a viable close air support platform.
In 2006 Australia became the first U.S. ally to receive Joint Terminal Attack Controller accreditation from the U.S. Joint Force Command (USJFCOM). For over a decade since, Australian JTACS have utilized U.S. B-52 and B-1B Lancer aircraft in the CAS role during real-world operations — making the EAC training crucial for crews in the air and on the ground.
“As the Australian JTACS prepare for their next deployment, we are here to provide the presence of American aircraft,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Elise Manley, 20th EBS flight commander and B-52 electronic warfare instructor. “By operating as we would in real scenarios, we help prepare them to work with aircraft they may not be used to working with – but will see downrange.”
JTACs attached to ground units must give precise directions and clear instructions on the radio to allow bomber crews to effectively put bombs on target. By relaying a ground commander’s intentions to the pilots, the operators mitigate the potential for error and protect lives.
To simulate an active air space operators can expect during combat, the Stratofortress was joined by Australian F/A-18A Hornets and PC-9 trainer aircraft. This challenged controllers to deconflict aircraft of various speeds and altitudes interacting in the same limited airspace – just as they would in a combat mission.
Strategic bombers offer enhanced payload with a variety of weapons that can put pressure on enemy positions. The simulated B-52 scenarios offered a diversity in possible weapons, giving JTACS on the ground the full gamut of what they may see in combat.
“The EAC exercise provided a unique opportunity to undertake air-to-surface integration with a military aviation asset that is not part of the RAAF fleet,” said RAAF Wing Commander Michael J. Duyvene de Wit, commander of No. 4 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown. “The persistence, payload and reach of the B-52 was a decisive asset in recent counter-ISIL operations. The opportunity to validate and develop tactics, techniques and procedures with the bomber was fantastic.”
The varied nature of the weapons available allows JTACs to choose weaponeering solutions matching the intended target and intent, while fuel range extends reach and on-station time in the air.
To enforce joint integration of air support, the training was also supported by ground liaison officer (GLO), linking air mission planners to the tactical requirements of infantry and artillery units.
The B-52H’s presence at RAAF Darwin marks the second EAC event of 2018. The first, held at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in February, tested and improved the aeromedical evacuation capabilities shared by the two air forces. RAAF Darwin has previously hosted the B-52s during training exercises in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
With their training mission complete in Australia, the B-52s returned to Andersen AFB, where they support U.S. Pacific Command’s long-running continuous bomber presence.
However, one lone Stratofortress remains on Australian soil: For 29 years now, a U.S. B-52 is on permanent display at the Darwin Aviation Museum – directly adjacent to RAAF Base Darwin. Given as a gift to Australia in March 1989 as a sign of the nations’ enduring defense partnership, the bomber called “Darwin’s Pride” sits without weapons or bomb-racks as a symbol of hope for peace throughout the region.
Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel, 36th Wing