Huge Strategic Exercise Is Underway With Half The B-2 Fleet Airborne Over The U.S. (Updated)
A series of strategic aircraft movements, including the congregation of a dozen KC-10s tankers, signaled a major operation was underway.
It started around 4pm PST when no less than a dozen KC-10 tankers began to pop up over the central United States. Around the same time, spotters in Minneapolis-St. Paul looked up to see a quartet of B-2 bombers barreling their way towards the southwest, their contrails streaking across the sky. It seems that two other groups of B-2s, another four-ship formation and a two-ship formation, followed shortly after. That is half the B-2 fleet in the air together at one time—something was clearly going on.
Not long after those sightings, reports of a pair of B-52 bombers heading east across the midwest popped up, one of those aircraft has since flown directly over Manhattan on its way across the Atlantic, while its wingman peeled off to the south, heading down the eastern seaboard of the United States.
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Meanwhile, The War Zone was pointed to the fact that large concentrations of KC-135 tankers have been amassed at Moses Lake in Washington State, as well as in Phoenix. Some of the aircraft came from units based far from American shores.
Now an E-4B airborne command post has launched out of Andrews AFB. These aircraft function as a flying Pentagon during a crisis and the National Command Authorities can wage war from them and initiate the release of nuclear weapons from anywhere on the planet.
It's quite possible that all these movements are not directly related, but at least the B-2 and KC-10 part of it looks very similar to the last iteration of an exercise nicknamed Neptune Falcon. During Neptune Falcon 2016, the U.S. Air Force's 509th Bomb Wing and the Missouri Air National Guard's 131st Bomb Wing, both based at Whiteman Air Force Base, launched 10 B-2s in rapid succession, according to an issue of The Warrior, Whiteman's official news magazine.
Additional information on Neptune Falcon is relatively sparse, but various editions of The Warrior describe it is an "annual combatant command exercise" that validates "readiness to execute a key Operations Plan." It seems almost certain the combatant command in question is U.S. Strategic Command. The operations plan it mentioned maybe OPLAN 8010, which defines how the U.S. military would go about launching a nuclear strike.
Ten B-2s is basically nearly the whole nuclear combat-ready inventory, and even then it takes a lot of hard work to get all those jets in the same air at the same time.
We will keep you updated as to how this exercise unfolds and we have reached out to Strategic Command for more information on what is clearly a huge test of readiness and a major show of force.
Update: 5:11am PST—
It's official, according to NOTAMs the exercise is indeed Neptune Falcon or a variation of that exercise. The B-2s, going by callsign 'Reaper,' are still up along with the tankers. An elongated rectangle block of airspace over the northern U.S., running roughly from Great Falls, Montana to just past Minot AFB in North Dakota, has been set aside. Another block of airspace reserved for the exercise sits northwest of the Nevada Test and Training Range. All told, this is likely the simulation of a long-range nuclear strike or global air power mission without leaving the United States.
Update: 10:00am PST—
U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), which oversees the service's strategic bomber, intercontinental ballistic missile, and supporting units, has given Air Force Magazine a short, official statement confirming that this massive aerial display was a training exercise, but little else.
U.S. Strategic Command has passed our separate queries to AFGSC, as well, and we will be sure to add an additional update if and when we hear back.
Update: 11:40am PST—
We at the War Zone have now received the exact same statement from AFGSC. "We don't have any further information at this time," a spokesperson for the command said when we asked it might be possible to confirm this was indeed the latest iteration of Exercise Neptune Falcon, as well as obtain additional information about the event.
Update: 12:40pm PST—
An Air Force spokesperson at Nellis Air Force Base has now confirmed that this flurry of aerial activity was indeed related to Neptune Falcon, as well as another exercise called Neptune Hawk, both of which began on April 16 and are set to wrap up on May 5, 2018. These exercises, which included personnel from across the U.S. military, "are joint air interoperability exercises designed to maintain readiness and evaluate employment capabilities in a realistic training environment," they added.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com