B-1B bombers hunt illegal fishing boats off South America

US Air Force B-1B bombers flying from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas watched for signs of illegal fishing during recent sorties over the eastern end of the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador and around the Galapagos Islands of this country. It would seem like an unusual mission for the B-1Bs, which are a very capable long-range strike platform, but it’s actually not the first time the bombers have supported international law enforcement activities. as a way to practice skills in a real-world environment.

Recent B-1B flights also highlight the Air Force’s current interest in expanding the maritime role of the B-1B, with a particular eye on anti-ship missions in future high-level conflicts, in especially in the Pacific. Additionally, the U.S. military is increasingly interested in ways to help challenge nefarious Chinese activities without conflict, including with respect to things like illegal fishing, in the wider Indo-Pacific region and the -of the.

A US Air Force B-1B bomber leaves Dyess Air Force Base in Texas during a recent counter-illegal fishing trip. USAF/Senior Airman Mercedes Porter

At least two B-1Bs from the Dyess-based 7th Bomb Wing took part in this mission, which took place on September 7. describes the outputs as a fight against “illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing” as part of a broader Continental United States (CONUS) Bomber Task Force (BTF) operation conducted in cooperation with governments from Ecuador and Panama. KC-135 aerial tankers flying from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida supported the B-1Bs. It is unclear whether any action has been taken regarding the suspected illegal fishing boats from information provided by the bomber crews.

“This type of regional military engagement strengthens our partnership with Ecuador and Panama and enhances interoperability and enhances our collective readiness for a range of potential future operations – from disaster relief to humanitarian assistance to by security operations,” according to a statement from US Southern Command. “When our forces train side by side, we improve our ability to work together in times of crisis.”

“There are some things only Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen can do, and this is one of them,” also said Air Force Col. John McClung, 7th Operations Group chief. of the 7th Bomb Wing, regarding sorties in the Eastern Pacific. “Based on the Airmen we have in this room, we can get this mission done and then turn around and regenerate in a few hours – we make it look easy, but it’s hard work. “

However, this is not the first time the Air Force has also demonstrated the B-1B’s ability to also act as an impromptu long-range surveillance platform, including in support of non-combat missions. , thanks to its AN/AAQ-33. Sniper Advanced Targeting Module (ATP).

A sniper pod is mounted on the lower right of a B-1B Lancer fuselage. The sniper pod allows the crew to positively identify a target and quickly assess combat damage after an attack. (US Air Force Photo/Jet Fabara)

This role is called Non-Traditional Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or NTISR. Sniper has full motion electro-optical and infrared video cameras as well as data link capabilities and can be used to help identify objects of interest below, track moving targets and generate GPS coordinates for specific points on the surface – all capabilities that mesh well with the NTISR mission.

B-1Bs, along with Air Force B-52s, have flown other types of NTISR missions in the past, including over the Caribbean searching for potential drug smuggling boats in the supporting regional counter-narcotics efforts. You can read more about these operations in this past war zone room.

In addition to providing NTISR support, B-1B flights in support of activities such as counter-narcotics or illegal fishing operations provide valuable real-world opportunities to practice various skill sets, potentially involving identification and tracking of real unpredictable targets. The experience gained from these sorties could be applicable, at least in some respects, to future combat sorties, particularly in maritime environments.

“We are competing in our own hemisphere,” Air Force Col. Joseph Kramer, commander of the 7th Bomb Wing, said in a statement about recent sorties in the Eastern Pacific. “These bomber missions demonstrate our ability to respond to threats in today’s complex, dynamic and volatile global security environment, anytime, anywhere.”

The Galapagos, one of the focal points of recent B-1B sorties, has been a particular flashpoint for these issues. The islands are a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve recognized by UNESCO and the Ecuadorian government said a 27,000 square mile marine reserve around them, a marine protected area that is second in size to that surrounding the Great Barrier Reef.

However, a 2020 report of Marine conservation group Oceana said fleets of Chinese fishing boats accounted for nearly all of the fishing seen near the Galapagos between July 2019 and August 2020, and completed 73,000 total fishing hours in just one month. during this period. Similar activity has been seen around these islands since then, as seen in the video below.

In June, US President Joe Biden signed the first-ever national security memorandum specifically focused on illegal fishing, which directed the Department of Defense and other federal agencies to strengthen cooperation and coordination to help better counter these activities. In the same month, members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the United States, Australia, India and Japan – announced plans to use space surveillance to help monitor illegal fishing.

Thus, the fight against illegal fishing is something in which the US military, as well as other elements of the US government, could increasingly be involved, directly and indirectly, as part of broader strategies to counter the China. In fact, a joint U.S. Navy-Marine Corps-Coast Guard naval strategy unveiled in 2020 highlighted the need for increased efforts to meet the daily maritime challenges of the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Russians, including increased surveillance. . malicious activities outside of war.

“In conjunction with international and whole-of-government efforts, the Naval Service will detect and document the actions of our rivals that violate international law, steal resources, and infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations. We will provide evidence of malicious activity to states- United and international leaders to expose this behavior and increase the reputational costs of aggressors,” an official strategy white paper explained. “Advanced naval forces, leveraging our police authorities and complementary military capabilities, will stand ready. to disrupt malicious activity through assertive operations. Our increased efforts will refute the false narratives of our rivals and demonstrate America’s commitment to protecting the rules-based order. “

That same document specifically criticized the Chinese government for, among other things, its “state-subsidized deep-sea fishing fleet [that] steals vital resources from nations unable to defend their own exclusive economic zones.”

That of the United States Navy Independence USS-class littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffordin the foreground, passes in front of the drillship Capella Westoperating under contract with the Malaysian government, in the South China Sea in May 2020. Capella West was at the center of a dispute between Malaysia and China at the time. This reflects exactly the kind of non-combat efforts to help “disrupt malicious activity” that the 2020 Tri-Service Naval Strategy highlighted as an important task for U.S. forces moving forward. USN
U.S. Air Force aircrew prepare to taxi onto the runway before takeoff at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, Sept. 7, 2022. The aircrews took off in support of a task force mission on bombers within the United States Southern Command. This type of regional military engagement strengthens the United States’ partnership with our partner allies, Ecuador and Panama, and enhances collective readiness for a range of potential future operations. (US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Mercedes Porter)

In terms of US military assets, US Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft would be far better suited to this task. Unmanned aircraft designed to conduct persistent large-scale intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, such as the Navy’s MQ-4C Tritons or Q-9 Reaper series, would be another option. Persistent maritime surveillance is one of the missions envisaged for future very high-flying, very high-endurance drones such as the Airbus Zephyr S, an example of who recently crashed in Arizona after more than two months of flight as part of a US Army test.

Small, commercially derived platforms, particularly business jets and turboprop aircraft, configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, present another much more economical platform. It’s something The war zone noted in the past when discussing the use of bombers in the NTISR role in support of counter-narcotics operations. The US military already uses ISR aircraft operated by contractors for counter-narcotics missions.

There is always the possibility that B-1Bs could fly more sporadic counter-illegal fishing trips to help hone skills that could be useful in future maritime combat operations, particularly in the Pacific, while providing a helpful support to allies in the real world. and partners.

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Earnest A. Martinez