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Why did the US Air Force put on a show of strength last week?

The pandemic is going badly for Donald Trump, and it has left US aircraft carriers useless. Long-range bombers are still flying proudly, though.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
14 May 2020
B-1B Lancer receives fuel from a KC-135 for Bomber Task Force, 5 May 2020
B-1B on its recent European tour
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Kelly O'Connor/US Air Force. Some rights reserved.

Having insisted that COVID-19 is in retreat across the US, Donald Trump now finds himself having to eat his words. Not only is the virus spreading but it is accelerating in the very states that voted for him in the past.

His core support is under threat just as the presidential election campaign starts to build up for the vote in eight months’ time. Across the Midwest and South, in Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and North and South Dakota, and from cities through to small towns, the pandemic is now spreading not least in states where governors either ignored federal government lock-down advice or followed Trump’s lead and eased up on initial restrictions.

COVID-19 has now killed well over 83,000 people in the US, by far the worst of any country in the world, and there have been close to 1.5 million reported cases. The toll is now far greater than the combined US military losses in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Gulf War and the war with Iraq. It has killed more than 25 times the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks and certainly raises many questions over the relevance of the current US military posture.

The US military has given some assistance, with the navy’s two hospital ships, Mercy and Comfort, assigned to New York and Los Angeles. Among US allies there have been similar if small-scale responses: NATO has coordinated airlifts of urgent equipment, the RAF brought in emergency PPE equipment from Turkey, even if it did eventually turn out to be dud, and the British Army helped built some of the Nightingale emergency hospitals.

The US Air Force has taken a more normal military approach. At the height of the crisis it has just mounted a global show of force to demonstrate its ability to bomb targets anywhere in the world.

Last week it undertook three coordinated operations. First, on Monday a B-1B bomber took off from a base in South Dakota and flew to Europe in a Bomber Task Force operation. Three days later two B-2 stealth bombers and two pairs of B-52s flew from other home bases, either to US European Command or Indo-Pacific Command geographic areas. That’s only seven planes, but many others were used, not least refuelling tankers, and thousands of air force personnel were involved in bases across Europe and the Pacific.

What was it all for? After all, it could not have had any positive impact on controlling the pandemic, the worst US domestic crisis for generations. Official sources indicated that it demonstrated to the superpower’s enemies that it was very much in business in spite of COVID-19. As an air force source put it: “This dynamic employment of long-range bombers and supporting aircraft showcased the United States’ ability to conduct synchronised strategic deterrence anywhere in the world with a ready, lethal force.”

Go a little deeper and two other motives are far more plausible. One is that demonstrating global power will be popular with Trump and the Republicans as the battle over next year’s military budget looms, bearing in mind that there will be serious squeezes on all budgets after the huge federal spending in response to the pandemic.

The second is to show that the air force can handle COVID-19 in a way that the navy all too obviously cannot. Rivalry over the global reach of the two has long been a feature of interservice competition – the air force’s long-range bombers versus the navy’s huge floating air bases, the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that can go almost anywhere in the world.

But these have been crippled by the pandemic, with two of the navy’s ten Nimitz-class carriers out of action in port in Guam and Japan thanks to COVID-19, another doing a ‘Flying Dutchman’ act, unable to put into a US port because of the risk of crew getting infected, and a fourth delayed from deploying with crew members in quarantine. Four more are in refit or repair and one has just come back from a six-month deployment, leaving just one out of ten fully deployed overseas, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Indian Ocean.

For the air force, what better time to demonstrate its prowess? Indeed one air force general rubbed it in by saying: “The health of our team has been a top priority from the start of our COVID response and is key to sustaining missions like the Bomber Task Force. Although mitigation efforts created challenges to overcome, our allies, partners and adversaries should make no mistake that we are ready, able and willing to deter and defend when called upon.”

When it comes to the business of war, rivalry with the navy is very high up and so is next year’s budget. Somewhere down the list COVID-19 might appear, but don’t count on it.

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