While North Korea and many media outlets have erroneously identified America’s Guam-based bomber presence tasked with executing show of force operations directed at North Korea as “nuclear” provocations, the B-1B Lancers that have been deployed to the region for the past year and a half or so are decidedly non-nuclear assets. The bombers that just arrived to replace them however, are a different story.
For the first time since 2016, all three models of America’s long range, heavy payload bombers are currently sharing tarmac in Guam: the aforementioned B-1B Lancer, the B-2A Spirit stealth bomber, and the B-52 Stratofortress. The B-2As arrived in Guam only about a week ago, as they prepare to fulfill a new role in the adapting “assurance and deterrence” mission American military aircraft are taking part in over the Korean peninsula, and the B-52s landed just this week. The B-2A and B-52 serve as the aerial leg of America’s nuclear triad.
The B-1B Lancer did indeed begin its life as a supersonic, nuclear capable, heavy payload bomber, but had its hard points converted to only support conventional weapons in 2011, in adherence to the START treaty signed between the U.S. and Russia. As a result, America’s only supersonic bomber has been neutered since well before recent tensions with North Korea began to rise, despite Kim’s frequent claims that the United States is targeting him with nuclear assets. What it lacks in nuclear firepower, though, the B-1B more than makes up for in other ways, like its ordnance capacity of over 75,000 lbs of firepower, or its top speed of around Mach 1.25.
Now, as the Lancers and their crews rotate back to South Dakota at the end of this month, the B-52s will assume their role as the show-of-force response aircraft of choice in the region. Of course, the methodology employed by the aging bomber will have to be quite different than that employed by the B-1Bs. As a much slower aircraft, the B-52 is more susceptible to North Korea’s anti-air defenses, meaning its primary role as a cruise missile launch platform from safely outside surface-to-air missile range.
It is likely that those stand-off missiles would be used to engage North Korea’s air defenses, clearing a path for further encroachment over the peninsula and offering the stealthy B-2A Spirits an easier approach.
The shift from conventional ordnance bombers to nuclear capable ones may make diplomatic waves amid the first high level talks between North and South Korea in over two years, though North Korea’s frequent accusations regarding the B-1B conducting “nuclear strike” drills may mean they won’t see a difference in policy reflected in the change of platform.
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