The ultimate symbol of the Cold War is back to play a leading role in the confrontation between NATO and Russia that began last year over the Ukrainian conflict. The United States is sending the B-52 Stratofortress, the giant nuclear bomber that stood on alert for decades to strike the Soviet Union, to take part in an exercise in Sweden next month -- right on the doorstep of Russia, in the airspace where Russian warplanes have been venturing for months. The appearance of the bombers over northern Europe may further persuade observers that the climate between East and West has turned into a new cold war, complete with the exact same weapons of mass destruction that defined the old one.
Unlike during the uppercase Cold War, the huge eight-engined bombers will not carry nuclear bombs. They will make an appearance during a naval exercise on June 13, flying nonstop from the U.S. and simulating a drop of anti-ship mines near Ravlunda on the Baltic Sea, Swedish general Karl Engelbrektson told journalists at a press conference on Wednesday.
Swedish broadcaster Sverige Radio reported, citing the Swedish news agency TT, that the mission is intended to simulate the defense of the coast in case of an attack by amphibious forces. The exercise, code-named Baltops, is an annual event, now in its forty-third edition, but takes a special significance this year amid increased hostility from Russia in the Baltic Sea. Last year, Russian submarines may have entered Swedish waters twice, sparking massive hunts by the Swedish navy that failed to turn up anything conclusive, but raised fears that Russia was reverting to tactics it had not used since the days of the USSR.
The goal of the exercise "is to increase the different operative capabilities, but also to send clear security political signals that we do these things together with others," Engelbrektson said, as quoted by SR.
The mission of the B-52s may be meant as a show of force to Russia, by proving that the U.S. can support its European allies by striking swiftly and at great distance. (The bombers will take off from the continental U.S., fly nonstop to the Baltic with in-flight refueling, and return to base.) Sweden is not strictly an American ally; as a neutral nation for centuries, it isn’t even a member of NATO. But in recent months the government in Stockholm has made moves to align itself more closely with the alliance, with the understanding that in any conflict with Russia the Swedes would side, if they fought, with the West.
"I am guessing that the signal is aiming to say that Sweden will not give in to the kind of scare tactics that part of Russia's actions can be interpreted as, such as the violation of our air space," Jacob Westberg, a lecturer in security policy and strategy at the Swedish Defence University, said, as quoted by SR.
The venerable B-52s have been in service for 60 years, but their range, enormous bomb-carrying ability and sinister fame still make them a powerful pressure tool for U.S. policymakers. When Washington wanted to make the point to North Korea last year that the regime's aggressive antics had to be curtailed, it flew two B-52s close to the border.
The bombers have already been to Europe recently as well, taking part in an exercise in the Mediterranean in October 2014 called Noble Justification. The entire fleet is kept at two bases in the United States, Barksdale in Louisiana and Minot in North Dakota, with bombers sent across the globe on exercises -- and even in wartime. (B-52s bombed Iraq on the opening night of the Gulf War, flying out of the U.S. and then returning nonstop, in a mission that lasted 35 hours.)
Last year, in another move that may have been directed at Russia, the U.S. Air Force based in Europe for the first time its most advanced bomber, the stealthy B-2. But now, the task of signaling U.S. determination to stand with NATO falls once again to an airplane that first flew in 1952.
"How Russia interprets that, they can decide for themselves," Engelbrektson said, speaking of the B-52s' arrival over Sweden in June.