Why did two U.S. B-52 bombers fly from North Dakota to the Persian Gulf last weekend?

Most likely, it was a warning to Iran: don’t build nuclear weapons and don’t attack U.S. troops.

But will Iran listen?

The two B-52H bombers belonging to the U.S. Air Force’s 5th Bomb Wing took off from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, on November 21st. They were quickly detected by aircraft spotter enthusiasts who used the aircrafts’ Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders to track their movements.

The bombers, call signs Warbird1 and Warbird 2, were tracked crossing the Atlantic, flying past Gibraltar to the Eastern Mediterranean, then passing over central Israel north of Jerusalem, according to the Aircraft Spots site on Twitter. Tracking was lost as the aircraft crossed into Jordanian airspace and then continued on to the Persian Gulf, before being re-detected on the return flight over the Atlantic west of Spain. With the Persian Gulf more than 7,000 miles from North Dakota, the non-stop flight meant the B-52s – originally designed as intercontinental bombers in the 1950s – were in the air at least 24 hours.

A press release by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which covers the Middle East, said the “short-notice, long-range mission” was intended to “deter aggression and reassure U.S. partners and allies.”

“The non-stop mission demonstrates the U.S. military’s ability to deploy combat airpower anywhere in the world on short notice and integrate into CENTCOM operations to help preserve regional stability and security,” CENTCOM said. What the bombers actually did during the mission, and what their armament was, is unclear: the CENTCOM announcement merely noted that the B-52s worked with Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) air operations centers, F-15E and F-16 warplanes, and KC-10 and KC-135 tankers.

Interestingly, the final sentence in the CENTCOM press release blandly stated that the “last U.S. long-range bomber presence in the Middle East was in early 2020.” While the Air Force periodically dispatches long-range Bomber Task Force missions as show-the-flag operations, the question is why fly heavy bombers – and fly them so publicly — on Iran’s border now?

The answer almost certainly is that the B-52s were intended as a warning to Iran. Last week, the New York Times reported that President Trump had asked his advisers for options regarding U.S. strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Trump’s query reportedly came after the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Iran has increased its stockpile of nuclear material in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from a multinational nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama White House. Meanwhile, on November 17, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq fired rockets that landed near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

It appears less than coincidental that the B-52 flew over Israel and Jordan – two key American allies in the Middle East – before continuing to the Persian Gulf and Iran’s border. “Although B-52s can be tracked online quite often, the fact that the WARBIRD 1 and 2 flights were visible on the most popular flight tracking websites seems to prove the mission was a clear show of force against Iran,” noted the Aviationist Web site.

However, the question remains: what exactly will the B-52 flights accomplish? The U.S. already maintains considerable forces near Iran’s borders, which have included Air Force F-15s based in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, one or two Navy aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, as well as Marine amphibious units and various special forces. U.S. troops also operate in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Despite all this military might, and the crippling economic effects of U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, Iran continues to expand its nuclear program and to develop other weapons, such as ballistic missiles. A few B-52s won’t change that equation, even if armed with nuclear weapons that at best would be perceived as nothing more than a colossal bluff.

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