America is in tit-for-tat military escalations on two fronts: China in the east and Russia in the west. On Thursday, Russian bombers flew directly towards the Swedish coastline, abruptly turning away at the last moment. This came as it was announced the US will be flying B-52s to Sweden for a major exercise.
The Russian bombers, swing-wing supersonic Tu-22M Backfires, flew over the Gulf of Finland and then swung around to the south, right off the southern end of Oland. Although Russia has been flying strategic aircraft throughout the region on a regular basis, a highly provocative event occurred over Sweden last fall when a formation of Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft are said to have actually penetrated Swedish airspace. This, along with other flagrant events, have resulted in Sweden viewing Russian aircraft operating near its shores as threats. As such, they are usually accompanied by Swedish JS39 Gripen fighters that launch on alert whenever they approach.
The move to send B-52s, America’s venerable nuclear-capable strategic bomber, a Cold War icon, to Sweden for drills marks the closest forward deployment American bombers have made to Russia’s tense border with Europe. Another long-range B-52 mission took place last April, but did not include direct simulated attacks as part of a allied exercise hosted by a foreign nation, nor did it venture anywhere near as far east as the Sweden’s Baltic Sea coastline.
The B-52s are participating in an exercise called “Baltops,” which will include 4,500 personnel, 50 ships and 50 combat aircraft. Two of these aircraft will be B-52H Stratofortresses which will fly from the US mainland on June 13th to execute one of the jet’s latent mission sets: laying down large strings of naval mines.
The use of naval mines is largely viewed as an area denial tactic and sends a unique signal to Russia, whose naval bases on the Baltic could be temporarily put out of commission by the deployment of such weaponry. For this exercise, the B-52s’ long-range mine-laying mission is said to simulate rebuffing a marine invasion of Sweden’s southern shores. This is also a uniquely pointed scenario considering Sweden’s frantic phantom submarine hunt that put the country on edge last fall.
The B-52 is capable of deploying an array of naval mines, ranging in size from 500lbs to 2,000lbs. It can carry 50 of the 500lb class weapons, 30 of the 1,000lb class and 20 of the 2,000 class. It may be able to carry even more mines in the future as upgrades to its internal bomb rack systems mature.
Beyond the tactics and weapons the B-52s will be using during Baltops ‘15, Independent Sweden’s increasingly close cooperation with NATO is meant to send strong signals to Russia. Among these messages is that the more you poke and prod, the tighter strategic military alliances in the region will become, which represents a collective deterrent to Russian aggression.
With all this in mind, it looks like it is going to be a chilly summer on the Baltic Sea...
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.