‘Showing force’: B-1 bomber crews’ airpower keeps enemy in check

After a 12-hour nighttime close-air support mission over Afghanistan recently, Capt. Craig Morrison, Maj. Mike Jason and Capt. David Grasso walk from a B-1B Lancer. The weapon systems officer, aircraft commander and co-pilot are assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, part of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ricky Best)

by Maj. Ann Peru Knabe
379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
From USAF web site

12/28/2006 – SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) — Capt. Craig Morrison tucks himself into the bottom bunk around 9 a.m. as the bright sunlight bounces off the desert rocks and sand outside his dorm. The 29-year-old weapon systems officer sleeps almost 12 hours.

That evening, he reports to duty with the rest of the B-1B Lancer crew from the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron at the squadron operations building.

The former finance officer meets up with aircraft commander Maj. Mike Jason, co-pilot Capt. David Grasso and fellow WSO Capt. Richard Kovsky for a mission brief. On this particular mission, Captain Morrison will sit in the offensive systems officer seat in the B-1, where he is responsible for the jet’s basic navigation. Captain Kovsky, will take the defensive systems officer’s seat. Both WSOs serve unique roles in the B-1.

“When I sit in the OSO seat, I’m responsible for getting the jet to the target area on time,” Captain Morrison said. “The OSO acts as a bombardier, managing all the weapons while building the individual and group target sets for CAS (close-air support) missions, and we manage the inertial navigation system and operate the radar.”

The late-night mission brief gives the crew an overview of the sortie, and the locations and call-signs for the Joint Tactical Air Controllers who are attached to Army or Marine units on the ground in Afghanistan. The JTACs are the direct communication link between the B-1 aircrew and the ground forces supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

The crew listens intently to their primary JTAC, a coalition partner from Spain, who provides the specifics of the upcoming mission

Thirty minutes later, Captain Morrison and the rest of the aircrew stop at the 37th EBS life support section to get their survival vests, harnesses for the ejection seats, 9-mm pistols and helmets. Their last stop is the grab ‘n’ go flight kitchen, where the crew loads up on foodstuffs and water. From there, they head to the flightline and jet off into the night.

Three hours later, the crew is flying in the dark sky, high above Afghanistan. Using radios, they check in with the JTAC who was attached to an Army unit guarding a village. As Army troops in vehicles patrolled the perimeter, the B-1 crew circled the area looking for enemy forces.

When the Spanish JTAC requested a “show of force,” the B-1 crew flew down near the suspected enemy activity.

“The B-1 is great for showing power,” Captain Morrison said. “We fly low, we fly fast and let the enemy know we are there.”

Sometimes it is simple intimidation, and other times it is just letting the enemy on the ground know airpower is ready to strike. Regardless, B-1 crews contend a “show of force” helps keep the enemy in check.

In some cases, the ground forces face life-or-death situations.

“There are times we have no doubt we are saving lives on the ground,” said Lt. Col. David Been, 37th EBS commander. “Part of our mission is responding to ‘troops in contact’ requests, supporting the JTACs with precise bombing or shows of force.”

Colonel Been said when the aircrew receives a TIC request, it means friendly forces on the ground need help immediately and there’s no time to spare. Typically, the ground forces are under enemy attack.

“The B-1’s wicked fast,” the squadron commander said. “At Mach 1.2, it’s faster than the speed of sound. So we sweep the wings back, and a “Bone” can usually respond anywhere in Afghanistan within minutes.”

The B-1B’s blended wing-body configuration, variable-geometry wings and turbofan afterburning engines combine to provide long-range maneuverability and high-speed while enhancing survivability. Forward wing settings are used for takeoff, landings, air refueling and in some high-altitude weapons scenarios. Aft wing settings – the main combat configuration – are typically used during high, subsonic and supersonic flight, enhancing the jet’s maneuverability in the low- and high-altitude regimes.

“The B-1 is capable of creating a multitude of far-reaching effects across the battlefield,” Captain Morrison said. “It’s a highly versatile weapon system with an offensive avionics system that includes high-resolution synthetic aperture radar, capable of tracking, targeting and engaging moving vehicles on the ground.”

In addition, an extremely accurate global positioning system enables aircrews to navigate globally without the aid of ground-based navigation aids, as well as engage targets with a high level of precision. All of these features are used in Operation Enduring Freedom missions like the ones Captain Morrison flies into Afghanistan.

By late morning, a KC-135 Stratotanker crew from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron arrives to refuel the B-1. As the OSO, Captain Morrison coordinates the “electronic rendezvous,” using the air-to-air mode of the radar to give the pilots headings and airspeeds for a successful refueling. The crew then flies back to support the Spanish JTAC for several more hours before leaving Afghanistan. In all, the sortie lasts 11 and-a-half hours.

Once back on base in Southwest Asia, the B-1 crew talks with 37th Aircraft Maintenance Unit maintainers to discuss any maintenance issues. Then they drop off their life support gear and meet with 37th EBS intelligence Airmen and the mission planning cell to discuss specific threats and findings associated with the mission. The last thing the crew does is debrief the day’s mission, evaluating their successes and looking for areas to improve.

“We fly as a ‘hard’ crew,” said Captain Morrison, explaining that Major Jason, Captain Grasso and Captain Kovsky always fly together during their OEF missions tasked to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing. “So it’s important we discuss any lessons learned and strive for continuous improvement as a team.” Captain Morrison said it’s exciting to be part of the aircrew that flies the largest payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the Air Force inventory.

“We’re the backbone of America’s long-range bomber force,” he said. “At the end of the day, I know we are making a difference in the War on Terrorism. I can’t think of a better job to have in the Air Force. Flying the B-1 definitely beats accounting.”