The U.S. military has flown two B-52 bombers over the Middle East—the fourth such mission this year—in an apparent show of force in the region.
It comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran as officials from both nations continue to struggle to come to an agreement on resuming the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as well as recent confrontation between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias in the Middle East.
Two B-52H Stratofortresses flew over the Middle East in the flyover as part of a Bomber Task Force (BTF) mission the military carried out on Sept. 4.
The B-52H Stratofortresses, which have been operated by the U.S. Air Force since the mid-1950s, are long-distance military combat aircraft that can carry nuclear weapons if needed. They can perform a wide range of capabilities, including “strategic attack, close-air support, air interdiction, offensive counter-air and maritime operations,” according to the U.S. Air Force.
The two bombers “conducted theater integration training and operations with a variety of U.S. Air Force, partner and ally aircraft, including F-15/18, RJ-135, E-3, KC-135/10/46, FGR-4, and A-330,” announced the Ninth Air Force on Sept. 5.
The Ninth Air Force, also called Air Forces Central, is the air component of the U.S. Central Command.
“This Bomber Task Force is a strong, clear representation of enduring U.S. commitment to the region,” Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, commander of the Ninth Air Force, said in a statement. “Threats to the U.S. and our partners will not go unanswered. Missions like this BTF showcase our ability to combine forces to deter and, if necessary, defeat our adversaries.”
The U.S. bombers departed from an airbase in Fairford, England, and “flew over the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea before departing the region,” according to the announcement. Accompanying the two U.S. aircraft were other fighter planes from Britain’s Royal Air Force, as well as the air forces of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, representatives from 16 nations joined in a coalition to provide logistical support.
“The combined coalition operation heightens regional stability and security capabilities to remain postured and ready to defend U.S., coalition and allied forces and interests in the region,” the release stated.
The Ninth Air Force stated that “BTF missions demonstrate readiness, enhance mission preparation and maximize our collective coalition strengths while building trust” within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, which spans 21 nations from Northeast Africa across the Middle East to Central and South Asia.
Israel also joined in the BTF mission, but the U.S. Air Force statement did not acknowledge the participation in its statement on Sept. 5. Three Israeli F-16 fighter jets accompanied the U.S. bombers “through Israel’s skies on their way to the [Persian] Gulf,” Israel Defense Forces said on Twitter on Sept. 5.
“This flight is part of the close cooperation with the U.S. Armed Forces, which is significant to maintaining aerial security in Israel and the Middle East,” it added.
U.S. Central Command was expanded last year to include Israel, a move seen to encourage regional cooperation against Iran under former President Donald Trump.
Tensions Over Nuclear Deal, Military Confrontations
Although the U.S. Central Command did not mention Iran or tensions over the 2015 nuclear deal, the United States has frequently dispatched B-52 bombers to the region as hostilities persist between Washington and Tehran. The last such flyover was in June.
Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran in May 2018, in an effort to force the country’s ruling Islamic regime to change a plethora of activities that the Trump administration deemed unacceptable.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It required Iran to restrict its nuclear program in return for the lifting of economic sanctions from the United States, the EU, and the United Nations.
Former President Barack Obama in 2015 promoted the deal as the “best option” to keep Iran from wielding nuclear arms, even temporarily. But despite the deal, the Iranian regime in 2017 announced a 150 percent increase in its military budget to develop long-range missiles, armed drones, and cyber-warfare capabilities. It also started to use part of its $150 billion in assets abroad that had previously been frozen by sanctions.
Since 2018, multiple attempts at reviving the deal have shown little progress. On Sept. 2, the U.S. State Department described Iran’s latest negotiating position as “not constructive.”
Iran now enriches uranium up to 60 percent purity, which is an unprecedented level for the country. It is a technical step away from 90 percent. Highly enriched uranium is one of the two key ingredients used to build nuclear weapons. The other ingredient is plutonium.
In 2019, the Iranian regime said publicly that it was in breach of the uranium enrichment limits set out in the 2015 nuclear deal. President Joe Biden and European leaders have criticized Iran over what they called “accelerated” and “provocative nuclear steps” taken by the Iranian regime as it continues to enrich uranium.
Some analysts have previously said that Tehran has enough 60 percent-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran are also over recent confrontations between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias in the Middle East.
U.S. Central Command said on Aug. 23 that U.S. forces had conducted targeted airstrikes on militias backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The airstrikes prompted rocket attacks by suspected Iran-backed militants that injured three U.S. service members. In response, U.S. forces deployed attack helicopters on Aug. 24 and destroyed “three vehicles and equipment used to launch some of the rockets.”
On Sept. 2, Iran’s navy briefly seized two American sea drones in the Red Sea. The seizure came just days after the IRGC towed another American sea drone before releasing it after an American warship approached it. The U.S. Navy has been deploying ultra-endurance aerial surveillance drones to monitor threats in the crucial waterways, which have witnessed repeated maritime attacks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.