B-52 bomber spotted flying low off Somalia

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A B-52H bomber belonging to the U.S. Air Force has been photographed flying low near the Somali island of Koyama. According to a local photographer, the bomber, which appeared at around 2:30 PM local time, caused some confusion and concern among the locals. So, why would a B-52 be flying low over that area and where did it come from?

You can see the images taken by photographer Abdishukri Haybe, below. He was kind enough to allow us to publish them:

We geolocated the images based on what is in the foreground and they do appear to be taken near a small village on the west side of Koyama island, which is just a mile from the Somali mainland. This would have put the B-52 well within Somali airspace.

Google Earth

Roughly the angle/area of where the photo would have been taken.

Google Earth

Koyama Island in relation to the Somali coastline.

B-52Hs are currently forward-deployed to Diego Garcia, America’s outpost in the Indian Ocean. As we reported at the time, the Pentagon planned to send six of the bombers there as a contingency for a potential conflict with Iran. They have slowly trickled in over the days and weeks that followed the original deployment announcement and they have remained there since.

The images below were taken yesterday, Feb. 14, 2020, showing the bombers on the sprawling apron at Diego Garcia. Note that six were seen in one image and four in the other. This is common as some of the bombers will execute long-range sorties in the region or even transit to and from the U.S. to augment or replace ones that are already on the island.

PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

The regional sorties can be for training or operational needs. Somalia remains a highly complex country that continues to experience deep instability. Piracy, while less of a concern than it was a decade ago, continues to be an issue. The B-52H carries a Sniper electro-optical and infrared pod that is primarily used for targeting, but it also can and is also used for what is called non-traditional information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (NTISR) gathering.

Having the B-52s scan the littorals off Somalia for potential nefarious activities, such as smuggling or piracy, and/or gathering intelligence on targeted sites is all within the bomber’s wheelhouse. In fact, the Air Force’s B-1Bs and B-52Hs are known to do exactly this over the Carribean in support of counter-drug smuggling operations. You can read all about this unique application of America’s hardest-hitting airpower in this past piece of ours.

In 2017, President Donald Trump’s Administration also designated the southern part of the country, in which Koyama Island is situated, as an “area of active hostilities.” This led to a significant expansion in U.S. military activities aimed at Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda’s franchise in Somalia, including a particularly notable spike in airstrikes against members of the terrorist group.

So, it is also possible that this sortie was a signal meant for Al Shabaab. On Jan. 5, 2020, the group launched a brazen attack on an airstrip that U.S. military personnel and contractors use in neighboring Kenya, known as Manda Bay, as well as another forward operating location nearby, known as Camp Simba. The terrorists killed one U.S. military servicemember and two American contractors and destroying a mix of six fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Al Shabaab

A picture Al Shabaab released during the attack on Manda Bay in January 2020, showing one of the aircraft that was damaged.

That attack had come just over three months after Al Shabaab launched a raid on another major U.S. forward operating base at Baledogle in Somalia, which did not result in any fatalities or significant damage, according to U.S. Africa Command. That incident prompted subsequent American airstrikes against the terrorist group.

Koyama Island is situated around 85 miles northeast of the Kenyan border and some 25 miles southwest of Kismayo, the largest city in Somalia’s semi-independent Jubaland region. The B-52 flight comes just days after U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, visited Jubaland and, together with U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Donald Yamamoto, met with its President Ahmed Mohamed Islam Madobe.

“I commended Jubaland President Madobe for coordinated operations by the Jubaland Security Force, Danab, and Somali National Army that have struck at al-Shabaab in the Juba River Valley,” Yamamoto said in a statement. “These operations are a model of cooperation between the national government and effective state security forces that the United States seeks to support throughout Somalia. We call on the Federal Government and all Member States to work constructively together to fight our common enemy al-Shabaab.”

Townsend’s trip to Jubaland had immediately followed a visit to Kenya, including the airstrip at Manda Bay, which is located some 60 miles from the border with Somalia. In January, testifying before Congress, the AFRICOM chief admitted that the defenses at the sites in Kenya were lacking and that he was concerned about the potential for another attack.

USAF

A member of the US Army provides security during the delivery of additional supplies to Manda Bay, Kenya on Feb. 5, 2020.

Following the attacks Kenya, the U.S. military immediately deployment elements of a contingency response force, known as the East Africa Response Force, based in Djibouti, to reinforce security there. Additional physical defenses are also under construction now.

“We weren’t as prepared, and we’re digging in to find out why that is the case,” Townsend told lawmakers. “Al Shabaab has shown their reach, and the danger that they pose, and I think that we need to take that seriously.”

USAF

US Army troops build a defensive position at Manda Bay in January 2020 following the Al Shabaab attack.

A B-52 sortie would also make clear to Al Shabaab how serious the United States is taking the situation. It could also have conducted some training with U.S. forces and their local partners, which would also better enable the bombers to be employed over the country during a crisis.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the first time Air Force B-52s have conducted ostensible training missions around the African continent that clearly demonstrated the ability of those aircraft to respond to regional contingencies. In 2016, as part of an exercise known as Just Hammer, one of the bombers flew a mock mission from RAF Fairford that took it off the coast of North Africa.

We have reached out to U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Air Forces Africa for more information. We will update this story with any additional information as it becomes available.\

UPDATE:

U.S. Africa Command has posted a statement on Twitter acknowledging the bomber mission, it reads:

“In concert with partners, A B-52 training mission occurred in East Africa. This long-range, unarmed training mission showcases the global reach and agility of U.S. forces. It also reflects our versatility and continued commitment to our partners.”

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