Bombers in the Guard

Oct. 1, 1994

The United States Air Force embarked on a provocative expansion of the Total Force concept last July 1. That was the day it transferred ownership of ten B-1B bombers to the Kansas Air National Guard, the first time a reserve component unit had been given control of a long-range combat aircraft.

The moment passed almost unnoticed amid the rush of other post–Cold War events, but it was a milestone. It represented an important step in the service’s attempts to make do with less money, and it hinted at broader changes to come. Some viewed the event as a microcosm of the promise and problems inherent in shifting the active-reserve force mix toward greater dependence on the Guard and Reserve.

As historic moments go, handing over a thick maintenance manual hardly qualifies as dramatic, but that is how the formal transfer of the B-1Bs occurred. After flying the first Guard-bound B-1B into McConnell AFB at Wichita, Kan., Maj. Gen. Donald W. Shepperd, director of the Air National Guard, turned over the owner’s manual to Lt. Col. Russell T. Axtell, Jr., newly minted commander of ANG’s 184th Bomb Group.

“ Change is here,” said Army National Guard Maj. Gen. James F. Rueger, adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard. “If you don’t believe that, look outside.” He gestured to a dull gray B-1 parked in the broiling sun.

The move was more than a year in the making. On May 27, 1993, the Air Force approved a series of force-structure changes intended to remake units based at McConnell. The announcement called for the 184th Fighter Group, which trained pilots for the single-seat, front-line F-16, to relinquish its fifty-four fighters, assume control of ten B-1Bs, and become the 184th Bomb Group. The F-16s and associated training mission were slated for reassignment to the 58th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB, Ariz.

At the same time, USAF identified the first four B-1Bs—later increased to six—that the Guard would receive. To get to the 184th, the bombers would literally move across the McConnell asphalt from the active 384th Bomb Wing, which controlled seventeen of the swept-wing bombers.

Two months later, Brig. Gen. Charles R. Henderson arrived at McConnell to assume command of the 384th and preside over its deactivation and the base’s transition from an Air Combat Command bomber base to an Air Mobility Command refueling base.

Days of Future Past

As part of a service-wide restructuring, McConnell was to shift from serving as a key bomber base to hosting one of three continental US–based KC-135R air refueling wings. For McConnell, this change would not occur without irony. The base had carried out precisely the opposite transition just six years earlier, when the Air Force withdrew a refueling mission and moved its new B-1Bs there.

Until January 1, 1994, McConnell was the host base for seventeen B-1Bs and seventeen tankers. On New Year’s Day, these bombers began to cycle out of the base to other locations, while the tanker fleet began to grow into what eventually will be four squadrons, containing forty-eight aircraft.

ANG’s 184th Fighter Group was selected to receive the B-1Bs for a host of reasons. First, USAF is engaged in a significant drawdown of its force structure. From a peak of thirty-seven tactical fighter wings in 1989, the service has shrunk to slightly more than twenty wings. With the need to train F-16 pilots consequently reduced, the demand for the services of ANG’s instructor pilots ebbed.

Second, the Total Force concept envisions Guard personnel participating in just about every aspect of Air Force operations. In the past, Guard units have flown attack aircraft, fighters, tankers, and transports. As it became apparent that the 184th required a new mission, the proximity of McConnell’s B-1Bs made the solution fairly obvious.

“ The major reason for shifting it to the Guard was, as we look at the total force, we want to make sure that we have a balanced force,” said General Shepperd.

General Henderson came to McConnell after having served on the Joint Staff in Washington, D. C., as chief of Nuclear Operations, Command and Control Division. In his new post, he presided over the potentially problematic transfer of one of the most advanced weapon systems to a fighting force that had had no experience with them. He viewed the task as a straightforward one. “Our responsibility was to make sure our knowledge and resources were transferred in an organized and reasoned manner to the Guard,” he said. “We were the principal training organization on how to schedule, employ, and maintain the airplane.”

General Henderson and the other officers of the 384th identified seventeen major areas that would be critical to the transfer’s success. An Office of Primary Responsibility on both the Guard and active-duty sides was designated for each. In October 1993, representatives of ACC, the National Guard, and AMC met at McConnell for a site-activation meeting that solidified planning for the transition.

The shift presented few initial logistics problems because the aircraft were to remain in their current hangars, which are well situated for their maintenance needs.

A Major Challenge

ANG faces a complex balancing act in trying to meet its maintenance requirements for ten B-1Bs amid the crowding and bustle of a forty-eight-aircraft KC-135 operation. “That’s going to be a major challenge, especially during wintertime when you need conditions of a hangar for heavy maintenance,” said General Henderson.

Brig. Gen. John Crawford, commander of the Kansas ANG, noted that the B-1B maintenance area will be located across two active runways from the Guard facilities. Officials of the 22d Air Refueling Wing are working with the Guard on the required sharing procedures.

In April, the first Air Guardsmen returned from their initial B-1B training at Dyess AFB, Tex., and began flying with the active-duty bomber crews of the 384th. While at Dyess, the former fighter pilots received the same introduction to the B-1B that any raw active-duty candidate would. Mixed with active-duty trainees in one of four twenty-four-man classes that would pass through Dyess that year, the Guard pilots received five months of instruction, including initial training of twelve sorties.

After two months of classroom work, the trainees were brought to the flight line. The first four flights were consumed with orienting the new pilots to the airplane. Then training moved into night operations, live drops on the Utah test range, air refueling, pattern flying, and safe recoveries after an emergency, according to Capt. Mike Shoults, a B-1B pilot at Dyess.

In many ways, the Guard pilots could not have been better prepared to enter the B-1B course. As F-16 instructors, they were all highly trained aviators with more than 2,000 hours of flight time. All were former active-duty Air Force officers who had moved on to full-time Guard status. No so-called “traditional” Guard pilots are involved in the transition to date. A handful of airmen from the 384th left active duty to become full-time Guardsmen. They are flying as Offensive Systems Operators and Defensive Systems Operators. “That’s smoothed the transition; we know these people,” said B-1B commander Capt. R. G. McManus of the 384th.

As a result of their experience with offensive strike packages, Guard pilots fit easily into the B-1B’s new emphasis on conventional missions.

Learning to Ask

Still, the new B-1B pilots faced some potential difficulties. They were moving from a single-seat aircraft, where the pilot is in complete command, to a four-man cockpit, where “crew management” is a key skill. For the ANG pilots, the shift meant they had to ask crewmates for information that previously had been available at a glance.

Those involved in the training on both sides said the transition was uneventful. “It’s been very easy for them,” said Captain Shoults. “They’re used to flying formation with other crews. The same considerations that are involved in taking care of your wingman go along with taking care of other crew members.”

The final portion of the Dyess training involves an exam and simulator evaluation along with a checkride in which the new pilot is responsible for making all the decisions. On average, Captain Shoults said, this sortie lasts five to six hours. It entails live drops at test ranges in New Mexico or Utah and instrument flying along a low-level route into Colorado or west Texas at about 500 feet above ground level.

New pilots and their instructors agree that the toughest part of the B-1B training is the first night air refueling mission. Lt. Col. John Sanders, an ANG F-16 instructor turned B-1B pilot, said the much larger bomber is not as responsive as the highly maneuverable fighter. That means pilots accustomed to a quick and easy refueling hookup must learn to slide into position more gradually. “It takes a little more thought,” said Colonel Sanders.

Kansas ANG Maj. Bob Karslake was brought up short by the B-1B’s steep angle of descent in one training run. From an altitude of 15,000 feet, the bomber went into an automatic descent at an 8° angle until it reached 5,000 feet. Then the aircraft dove for the ground at a steeper 10° angle through thick cloud cover before leveling off at 1,000 feet.

“ By itself, that was pretty eye-opening for me,” said Major Karslake. “We hadn’t flown an airplane with that capability.”

General Henderson said pilots who return from Dyess are well schooled in B-1B procedures, but there is still much more to be done before the transition is complete. Upon returning to McConnell, the Guardsmen are put through local checkrides, perform additional night terrain-following and formation flying, and place what they have learned at Dyess “in a mission context,” said General Henderson. “The biggest challenge we have is that the mission and airplane are complex. This is a major transition from one complex system to another complex system.”

What will be the mission of the Kansas ANG’s 184th Bomb Group

General Henderson sees no direct assumption by the 184th of his active-duty unit’s mission, but he expects the Guard unit to be used from the outset of a conventional conflict. “We’re organized as a total force; we train as a total force; we’re going to war as a total force,” General Henderson said. “This is the next step in that process.”

Essential Guardsmen

Lt. Gen. Stephen B. Croker, commander of 8th Air Force, noted that Guard personnel are so deeply integrated into his headquarters that wartime operations would be impossible without their support. An estimated two-thirds of headquarters personnel as well as one-half of 8th Air Force’s combat punch are represented by ANG units, General Croker said.

Under the multiple regional contingency scenario that forms the basis of current DoD planning, Air Force bombers would be used early in any future conflict to interdict enemy armored units. The aim would be to delay and destroy an enemy spearhead until CONUS-based ground units arrived.

Skeptics might doubt it, but General Croker insists that ANG pilots would be in on the action from day one. “We need 184 bombers to keep 100 deployed. We don’t have 184 bombers. We have 100. Ten of these are going to be in the Kansas Air National Guard,” he said. “In our concept, the Guard will be contributing from the first day of conflict.”

For now, the Guard pilots are limited to conventional bombing missions. There is no legal prohibition against Guard personnel’s being associated with nuclear roles and missions. Apart from the obvious political concerns about involving the National Guard with nuclear weapons, however, General Croker noted pragmatic difficulties, such as the need to complete the “personal reliability” programs required of the Air Force’s active-duty strategic personnel.

He nonetheless praises the Guard concept without reservation. General Shepperd said he hopes to move to a mix of full-time and part-time Guard pilots assigned to B-1B duty. “There’s no reason our traditional pilots can’t fly this airplane and participate in this mission,” he said.

Once the first wave of Guard pilots returned to McConnell, active-duty pilots from the 384th began flying with them, sharing what they know of the aircraft and its capabilities. About twenty percent of the 384th’s recent sorties involved training flights with the Guard.

The key milestone for the new pilots was a late summer “Global Power” sortie. Four times each year, McConnell sends at least two aircraft on a long-range practice run meant to demonstrate the B-1B’s worldwide punch. Each mission lasts twenty to thirty hours and involves overwater flight and numerous air refuelings. There is usually a bomb run against a range in Europe or elsewhere as well as fighter-intercept exercises, often with US allies.

“ It’s a vivid demonstration of the Air Force’s ability to respond,” said General Henderson.

To get ready for the exhausting mission, pilots first complete a twelve-hour to fifteen-hour flight and participate in long-endurance flight training. There does not seem to be any magic about preparing for the grueling flights. A combination of diet, exercise, and flexible rest patterns is about all that can mitigate the effects of such long flights on alertness.

Beyond the Air Crews

Of course, so far as McConnell is concerned, the men in the cockpit are only part of the equation. Of equal importance are the ANG maintenance crews charged with learning quickly how to service a new and complex aircraft.

Maintenance crews began initial training in January; full-time work started in March when Guard and active-duty crew chiefs began working together closely. As the July 1 transition approached, Guard crew chiefs were working alongside active-duty repair crews every day. As unscheduled maintenance chores arose, Guard personnel would be brought along to watch and learn. That happened in early summer, when a birdstrike led to the changing of five B-1 windshields. As individuals completed their training, they were pulled off F-16 duty to prevent safety problems caused by having people working on different aircraft.

Overall, ANG personnel approached the shift with little trepidation. “Most of us in the Guard have worked several different airplanes,” said TSgt. Timothy Frawley. “An airplane is an airplane.”

The B-1B and the F-16 are obviously very different. With a maximum operating weight of almost 240 tons, the bomber dwarfs the fighter. Individual components are much larger, repair jobs are more manpower-intensive, and, at a height of thirty-four feet, the B-1B is twice as tall as the F-16.

Like their cockpit counterparts, the maintenance crews consist of experienced, full-time personnel with substantial active-duty tenure. Sergeant Frawley, for example, spent four years on active duty working on KC-135A and R models before switching to F-4 and F-16 fighters during nine years with the Kansas ANG.

Along with experience, the Guard also boasts a stable work force. “We’re here because we want to be here, not because we’re forced to be here by a four-year commitment,” said Sergeant Frawley.

ANG officials are concerned about the adequacy of spare parts reserves and its impact upon readiness. They worry about keeping sortie rates high with a smaller maintenance staff than the active-duty unit enjoyed.

The Air Force is experimenting at Ellsworth AFB, S. D., with a program aimed at achieving a seventy-five percent mission capable rate through priority provisioning of spares. Early studies warned that ANG’s mission capable rate could drop as low as thirty-five percent if sufficient spare parts were not made available. Unit leaders are aiming for a figure in the eighty percent range. “That is a possible problem for us,” said Colonel Axtell.

The Guard units are expected to resemble active-duty operations in just about every way. Over the next several years, as a host of conventional system improvements is introduced to the B-1Bs, Guard aircraft are expected to be upgraded along with their active-duty brethren.

The Deployment Challenge

One new issue for the Guard unit will be deployment planning. As a training unit, the 184th never had to complete a large-scale mobilization and deploy to a faraway hot spot. “That’s something that we have not done,” said Colonel Axtell. “It’s a whole new direction for the unit.”

There are differing opinions as to the ultimate length of the transition. After October 1, when the 384th officially deactivates, a “stay-behind squadron” of roughly eighty active-duty servicemen from the 384th will remain at McConnell to steer the Guard unit through its first year of B-1B operations. For his part, General Shepperd foresees a two-year period before the entire Guard detachment is “up to speed.” The Guard hopes to hang on to three instructor pilots from the 384th for one year. No final decision has been made.

The transition is not at all a one-way process. Although the principal concern of those involved was easing the Guard pilots’ adjustment to their new roles, active-duty pilots also are facing new challenges—and learning from their ANG counterparts in the process.

Today the B-1B pilot is called on to fly as part of a conventional strike package of electronic warfare, fighter, tanker, and airborne warning and control aircraft. The threat from enemy interceptors may be much greater than during a classic SIOP mission.

Under the new thinking, electronic warfare aircraft would probably enter a hostile area first, jamming surface-to-air missile sites and enemy radars. Then US fighters, in an offensive counterair role, would quickly establish air superiority. Finally, heavy bombers like the B-1B, light bombers like the F-111, and F-16s flying ground-attack missions would strike their targets before departing under a fighter escort.

Pilots from the 384th say the Guard pilots have taught them about the tactics and other technical skills of a fighter pilot and given them new insights into the way combat aviators think. “They’re helping bring things from the fighter world so we have more of a perspective,” said Capt. Rich Clark of the 384th. “Any time you fly, you’ve got to fly like you’re going to fight.”

Captain Clark sympathized with the ANG pilots since he, too, had moved to the B-1B from another aircraft. He flew for several years aboard KC-135s out of Loring AFB, Maine, and spoke of changing from a “technician/tactician” aboard that plane to a real aviator in the B-1.

For the Guard pilots, an almost unspoken element in the transition was a “cultural issue” in shifting from fighters to bombers. At the outset of the July 1 ceremony, the Air Force staged a flyby with a pair of F-16s followed by a B-1B rumbling along at low level. As the fighters roared past the crowd on the McConnell tarmac and rose into the sky, the Guard pilots kept their eyes fixed on the F-16s even as their new B-1B appeared. Said General Shepperd, “The cultural hump to switch from fighters to bombers is a big deal.”

The technical aspects of learning to fly a new airplane can be mastered in time, but the Guard pilots do have the look of someone leaving behind a first love.

“ I miss the maneuverability in a fighter,” said Lt. Col. Bob Murphy. Added Major Karslake, “Being a fighter pilot is primarily an attitude. . . . I will never lose that no matter what I fly.”

David J. Lynch covers defense and aerospace matters for the Orange County Register in California. He is a former editor of Defense Week in Washington. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “Spacepower Comes to the Squadron” in the September 1994 issue.