USAF Practices Loading Live AGM-158 JASSM Missiles On B-52H Bombers During Readiness Exercise

A JASSM being prepared to be loaded on to a B-52H Stratofortress at Barksdale AFB on Jun. 10. (Image credit: USAF)

Bayou Warrior is a conventional readiness exercise that evaluated 2nd Bomb Wing’s ability to generate and execute conventional missions.

Upholding the importance of both the B-52H Stratofortress and AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile), the U.S. Air Force’s 2nd Bomb Wing loaded the missiles onto the bomber which later flew as a part of a “readiness exercise.” Notably, the weapons were live, recognizable by the yellow line, as opposed to the blue line used for inert weapons.

Held from Jun. 10 to June. 13, 2024 at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Exercise Bayou Warrior had a more logistical and technical goal of refining ground and maintenance crews’ proficiency with rolling out and loading the missiles on the large strategic bomber.

Photo descriptions and statements said the drill tests the wing’s ability to “generate, load, and deliver conventional weapons in a simulated environment,” underscoring the logistical, non-combat and technical support element of general warfighting. Previous exercises involving the B-52s, like Prairie Vigilance in April, saw crews loading the AGM-86B ALCM (Air-Launched Cruise Missile) on B-52H bombers at Minot AFB.

Staff Sgt. Grace Faso, 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons loader, fastens a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile onto a B52H Stratofortress during Exercise Bayou Warrior at Barksdale Air force base, June 10, 2024. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Nia Jacobs)

The latest exercise is in line with the B-52 being envisioned as an ‘arsenal plane’. Also called a ‘missile/bomb truck,’ this concept involves large, heavy, dedicated bomber or even transport aircraft carrying and launching massive volleys of air-to-ground missiles based on targeting data by other assets in a networked web.

Airmen from the 2nd Munitions Squadron prepare Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles to be transferred to and loaded on a B-52H Stratofortress during exercise Bayou Warrior at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., June 10 2024. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Seth Watson)

Exercise Bayou Warrior 

The press release quoted Lt. Col. Amanda Goncalves, the 2nd Operations Support Squadron Commander: “Bayou Warrior is a conventional readiness exercise that evaluates our ability to generate and execute missions.” The exercise required collaboration among maintenance personnel, aircrew, and weapons loaders to efficiently generate and load conventional weapons, and was preceded by months of  detailed preparation, coordinating inspection teams, and developing realistic scenarios.

“While the weapons were not actually deployed, flying with Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, or JASSMs, significantly enhances the aircrew’s proficiency,” the statement added. It is possible that the aircrew too practiced ‘electronic’ launches to simulate the missile firing, practicing the launch sequences and procedures.

Airmen from the 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron prepare to load munitions on a B-52H Stratofortress during exercise Bayou Warrior at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., June 10 2024. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Aaron Hill)

JASSM is the mainstay of air-launched standoff cruise missiles

After the USAF retired the AGM-86C/D CALCM (Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missile) on Nov. 19, 2019, the JASSM became the service’s mainstay for long range strikes.

The JASSM is also the weapon of choice for the USAF’s Rapid Dragon project. The program envisages both the C-130J Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III packing the missiles in disposable “pallets”, which are released from the ramps and subsequently eject the groups of the missiles. The service tested this “palletized” missile release in various occasions, including during an exercise in the western Pacific in Jul. 2023.

A 96th Bomb Squadron weapons systems officer, inspects a JASSM on a B-52H Stratofortress during exercise Bayou Warrior at Barksdale AFB on Jun. 12, 2024. (Image credit: US Air Force/Senior Airman Seth Watson)

Currently, for hitting both Russian or Chinese targets, U.S. military planners would prefer the AGM-158B variant, also called the JASSM-ER (Extended Range), as the roughly 1000 km range allows greater standoff capability than the 370 km range of the original AGM-158A variant. In the future however, given the need for even greater standoff distances to keep planes away from enemy aircraft and anti-air missiles, the upcoming JASSM-XR (Extreme Range) is likely to be the primary conventional standoff striker. The XR can reach distances between 1,600 to 1,900 km.

On May 28, the Polish government signed a contract to procure another batch of JASSM-ER in a $735 million contract covering 821 missiles, and last year also expressed interest in the JASSM-XR. This was followed by Finland announcing the acquisition of AGM-158B JASSM-ERs on May 31, to integrate them on the F-35As expected to be delivered by 2026. Helsinki already uses the AGM-158A JASSM, which is carried by the Finnish Air Force’s FA-18C/D Hornets.

B-52 and JASSMs

The B-52 can carry a total of 20 JASSMs, that includes 12 on outer pylons on the wings and another eight internally. The missiles are arranged in groups of three on a single pylon with six launchers, with one pylon on each wing. The capability to release a JASSM from an internal CRL (Conventional Rotary Launcher) was first demonstrated in Aug. 2016.

B-52 landing gear
A U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel)

An upgraded B-52J, firing the JASSM, JASSM-ER or the JASSM-XR allows even greater operational and tactical flexibility given the new bomber variants’ advanced networking and targeting capabilities. The upgrade program, however, has now been delayed, with Initial Operational Capability (IOC) pushed to 2033, according to the latest GAO (Government Accountability Office) report.

About Parth Satam
Parth Satam's career spans a decade and a half between two dailies and two defense publications. He believes war, as a human activity, has causes and results that go far beyond which missile and jet flies the fastest. He therefore loves analyzing military affairs at their intersection with foreign policy, economics, technology, society and history. The body of his work spans the entire breadth from defense aerospace, tactics, military doctrine and theory, personnel issues, West Asian, Eurasian affairs, the energy sector and Space.