“Operation Chimichanga” Tests Pentagon’s Stealth Strike Force

The first sign of the coming U.S. air raid was when the enemy radar and air-defense missile sites began exploding. The strikers were Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, flying unseen and faster than the speed of sound, 50,000 feet over the battlefield. Having emptied their weapons bays of super-accurate, 250-pound Small Diameter Bombs, the Raptors turned to engage enemy jet fighters rising in defense of their battered allies on the ground.

That’s when all hell broke loose. As the Raptors smashed the enemy jets with Amraam and Sidewinder missiles, nimble Air Force F-16s swooped in to reinforce the F-22s, launching their own air-to-air missiles and firing guns to add to the aerial carnage.

With enemy defenses collapsing, B-1 bombers struck. Several of the 150-ton, swing-wing warplanes, having flown 10 hours from their base in South Dakota, launched radar-evading Jassm cruise missiles that slammed into ground targets, pulverizing them with their 2,000-pound warheads. Its weapons expended, the strike force streaked away. Behind it, the enemy’s planes and ground forces lay in smoking ruin.

The devastating air strike on April 4 involved real warplanes launching a mix of real and computer-simulated weapons at mock targets scattered across the U.S. military’s vast Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex near Fort Yukon, a tiny former fur trading post, population 583. “Operation Chimichanga,” as the exercise was reportedly designated, was the first-ever test of a new Air Force long-range strike team combining upgraded Lockheed Martin F-22s and Boeing B-1s carrying the latest air-launched munitions, along with old-school fighters, tankers and radar planes for support.

Officially, Operation Chimichanga was meant “to validate the long-range strike capability of the B-1s as well as the F-22s’ and F-16s’ ability to escort them into an anti-access target area,” according to Lt. Col. Joseph Kunkel, commander of the Alaska-based Raptor squadron with the latest “Increment 3.1″ upgrade.

Unofficially, the exercise was a proof-of-concept for the Air Force’s evolving tactics for battling China over the vast western Pacific. Of course, the Air Force would never say that. In fact, the flying branch has said very little about Operation Chimichanga, aside from an official news story containing few details. We know when and where the exercise took place, which planes were involved and, to a lesser extent, which munitions. The scenario described above is largely a recreation based on these known facts plus years of aerospace reporting and a general understanding of the Air Force’s methods and aims.

While the Alaska test apparently proved that the stealthy strike team can defeat determined enemy forces at long range, it also underscored America’s vulnerability against the fast-growing Chinese military. It takes the latest stealth fighters and upgraded bombers flying as a team to beat China, and thanks to developmental problems America has only so many of those airplanes to work with.

Pacific Pivot

For more than a decade the Air Force has been quietly preparing for the unthinkable: a full-scale war with China. For such a conflict to occur, multiple layers of diplomatic and economic safeguards would have to simultaneously fail. In other words, war with China is as unlikely as it is unthinkable. All the same, as China grows more powerful, America boosts its own weaponry to keep pace. “The peace of East Asia has largely been kept by the very conspicuous presence of American military power,” Jonathan Levine notes in The National Interest.

America’s Pacific arsenal — 100,000 forward-deployed troops, 100 warships and thousands of warplanes — suffered somewhat from the resource-intensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with those wars ended or ending, Washington has pivoted back towards the western Pacific. U.S. Pacific Command is getting a greater share of American submarines, aircraft carriers, Littoral Combat Ships, stealth fighters and drones.

The Air Force’s roughly 150 B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers will play a bigger role, too. Originally designed to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union, in recent years all three models have been upgraded with new sensors, better communications and conventional weaponry including smart bombs, bunker-busters and cruise missiles.

Bomber tactics have gotten a refresh, too. In 2003, the Air Force began posting bomber squadrons to Guam on a rotating basis, putting them within quick flying range of China. A year later, Danger Room pal Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, now retired, helped organize thefirst-ever test sinking of a warship by a Boeing B-52 carrying smart bombs.

The 60 B-1s, normally based in Texas and South Dakota, have spent much of the last decade flying close air support over Iraq and Afghanistan. The ebbing of the those air campaigns freed up the 150-foot-long planes for other assignments. Last year two B-1s flew an epic, 24-hour mission from South Dakota to Libya, striking no fewer than 100 ground targets — a feat that required careful coordination and a mountain of paperwork by the different commands involved. Operation Chimichanga a year later was meant to see whether the same methods could work over the Pacific.

In parallel, the Air Force has tweaked the B-1′s equipment specifically for its new Pacific role. Last fall the flying branch added new GBU-54 Laser JDAMs, a version of the classic satellite-guided bomb that has also has laser guidance for last-minute adjustments — the kind you’d need to hit a moving ship. “It’s the first weapon where you can control it after it’s left the jet,” Capt. Alicia Datzman, a B-1 crewmember, tells Danger Room.

But it’s the new Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, built by Lockheed, that could prove the most important in any future war against China. The B-1 is only moderately stealthy. “We’re about the size of an F-16 on radar,” says Col. David Been, commander of the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. “But we’re by no means low-observable.” That means the 1980s-vintage bomber needs to stay outside the range of China’s deadly surface-to-air missiles, such as the HQ-15. The Jassm, which comes in 200-mile-range and 600-mile-range versions, can strike targets from farther away than the HQ-15 can defend. The B-1 can carry 24 of the cruise missiles, more than any other plane.

One-Two Punch

China is steadily improving its air defenses. To make sure the bombers can get through, the Air Force plans to send fully-stealthy warplanes in first. The Northrop Grumman B-2 stealth bomber is the ideal trailblazer, as it proved over Libya when three B-2s knocked out the bulk of Libya’s radars, missiles and airfields in a single pass. But the Air Force possesses just 20 B-2s, only a handful of which are combat-ready at any moment.

So the F-22 fills in. With the latest Increment 3.1 upgrade, the F-22s can lob 250-pound, Boeing-built Small Diameter Bombs at least 60 miles with pinpoint accuracy, a capability apparently tested out during Operation Chimichanga. The Raptor-bomb combo “was critical to follow-on forces completing their missions,” F-22 commander Kunkel said.

But even the F-22 is in short supply. So far only one Alaska-based squadron has the Increment 3.1 Raptors. When the upgrade is complete, around 150 F-22s will be able to carry the tiny, precise bomb — still a relatively small force for taking on potentially thousands of Chinese radars, missiles and jet fighters. The smaller F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is supposed to give the Air Force stealth capability in large numbers, but the F-35 is tens of billions of dollars over-budget and five years behind schedule.

In 2006, the Air Force launched an effort to build as many as 100 new stealth bombers. But the Next Generation Bomber experienced its own out-of-control cost growth. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled the new bomber in 2009 and told the Air Force to start from scratch.

With the approval of current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, last year the flying branch initiated development of the Long-Range Strike Bomber, a slightly down-graded version of the Next-Generation Bomber. Allegedly, it will cost just $550 million per copy — a fraction what the B-2 cost. (Although many military observers believe the new bomber’s price tag will grow significantly.) If and when the new bomber enters service sometime in the 2020s, it could significantly shift the Pacific balance of power.

In the meantime, teamwork is the key. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are working on AirSea Battle, a new playbook for combining their forces in Pacific combat. In that spirit, B-1s and other upgraded bombers will fly and fight alongside the latest F-22s and other warplanes, relying on new weapons and coordinated tactics to make up for a paucity of stealth. If Operation Chimichanga is any indication, these methods are deadly effective.

Let’s just hope we never need to use them.